Workshop speaker promotes civic engagement for older adults

Americans are living longer and healthier lives, and that presents both a challenge and an opportunity, says Jan Hively, the organizer of several peer networks and learning programs dedicated to active aging.

The challenge is that communities often aren’t organized in ways that make it easy for people to remain active and engaged as they age. But the opportunity is that older adults have skills and experiences that are essential to the workings of society. They can do work that needs to be done.

Jan Hively

Jan Hively

“We’ve had 20 years added, not to the end of life but the middle of life,” Hively said.

At age 81, Hively is a prime example. When funding was cut for her previous work in youth services, she finished a Ph.D. at age 69 and set about creating a new career. She travels around the U.S. and to Europe advising organizations on how to engage older adults in productive work.

She will be in Bloomington on Wednesday, May 8, as keynote speaker for a “Places with a Purpose” workshop sponsored by the Center on Aging and Community, part of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University Bloomington. The all-day workshop will take place at Ivy Tech Community College-Bloomington.

As a doctoral student, Hively carried out a survey on productive aging in rural communities in Minnesota. It opened her eyes to the idea that people can play essential roles in their communities long past the age when they’re expected to quit being active.

“I was so encouraged and surprised by the extraordinary productivity of the people who were left in those communities where the youth had gone away to college and never come back,” she said. “People in their 80s were county commissioners and running the grocery stores, and feeling good about it. They were in control of their lives, and a strong majority were healthy and active into their 80s.”

Inspired by what she saw, Hively founded the Vital Aging Network, an organization that promotes self-determination, civic engagement and personal growth for people as they age. She later helped establish Artsage, which fosters creative expression for older adults, and SHiFT, which supports meaningful work and engagement. Since 2010, she has worked on the European Voices for Active Aging project.

The question raised by the “Places with a Purpose” workshop is: Can Indiana cities and towns become lifetime communities? Hively answers with a resounding yes. She says older adults are eager to remain productive, guided by values of self-determination, community participation and self-sufficiency.

“People, as they grow older, want meaningful work,” she said. “They want to be doing something that is of benefit to themselves and to others. They want to have social interaction, and they like to get a pat on the back for doing something that’s useful.”

At the same time, Hively said, there’s a lot of work that needs doing, as the number of working-age adults declines and funding shrinks for public and nonprofit services. And productive, meaningful work includes not only employment but for volunteering and keeping civic organizations running.

A key to success, she said, is engaging older adults in leadership roles. “I’m 81 years old,” she said. “I don’t want to sit back and wait to be served. I can tell you, it’s not going to happen.”

The “Places with a Purpose” workshop is organized by Communities for a Lifetime, part of a national initiative to promote age-friendly communities, funded by Pfizer International Foundation with grants to Grantmakers in Aging and the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance. In addition to Hively, speakers will include Kim Irwin of the Alliance for Health Promotion/Health by Design, M. Scott Ball of Duany Plater-Zyberk Architects and Town Planners and Zachary Benedict of MKM Architecture + Design.

Registration  is $10 and is available online (enter course #31482-123), by calling or emailing Katrina Jones at 812-330-6042 or, or on-site on the day of the workshop at 8:30 a.m.

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