Jul 12, 2013

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli counties.  This month I celebrate 30 years at Missoula Aging Services and 34 years working in the field of aging. Tonight I would like to pay tribute to all the older adults who have served as my mentors and helped shape my personal and professional journey.

I think of a mentor as a wise adviser, and I have been blessed with many throughout my career.  In 1979, I started my first job in aging when I moved to Whitefish, shortly after graduating in the field of Gerontology from Kent State University in Ohio. I was a wide-eyed 23-year-old ready to save older people from the injustices they experienced as they aged.  As I saw it, they needed me and my energy to fix the issues.  I soon learned that not all older adults needed to be saved.  Simply living to age 60 and beyond gave a person a certain resilience and wisdom just through life experiences.  My approach of assuming their needs and telling them what they were had to change.  The first big lesson on my journey could be summed up by the adage, “seek first to understand rather than to be understood.”  I also learned the importance of humility.   

Older adults have given me the benefit of experiencing live history through their stories. I grew to understand and deeply appreciate the Greatest Generation--those who had gone through the Great Depression as children, fought in WWII and believed strongly in the principles and morals of their time.  This generation experienced more change over their lifetimes than in any other period in history.   After the war, they lived in an era of prosperity when jobs were plentiful and companies rewarded loyalty with pensions that guaranteed them financial support until they died.  Social Security was created to keep older adults from slipping into poverty and to care for families who lost their major bread winner. A strong work ethic helped create the communities we live in today. Prosperity brought security and lots of babies, resulting in the Baby Boom generation. 

But those few remaining Greatest Generation members are now seeing a major shift, what I think is the beginning of many broken promises. Their Baby Boomer children are entering the stage of geriatrics at a time when pensions are all but lost and loyalty to a company is neither rewarded nor recognized.  A gentleman’s word, once his honor, is now a manipulation of words to get your money.  Alcohol use, the demon of their generation, is supplemented by both illegal and prescription drug abuse.  Leaving doors unlocked and living without fear is a thing of the past. Modern medicine has increased longevity, but over-the-top expenses of living mean many outlive their resources.  Some wish for death because they feel they are burdening their families and wasting resources that could be spent on the young.  

I’ve learned more about humility through their examples, too. I am continually amazed to work with elders who desperately need services, yet feel that someone else could use it more. Many are concerned that money spent on them will mean less for the children.  I’ve witnessed their fear and loneliness brought on by the loss of a spouse and lifelong friends.  I have acutely felt the need for our community to surround the very old and assure them they are not forgotten or alone.  After all, they once were young like many of you; the only difference now is an older face and a life’s journey to tell

As I have aged at Aging Services, I have had the good fortune of my older wise advisers nurturing me through my own life stages.  Their words of wisdom resonate now more than ever:  words like take time with your children because when you look back it will be a mere blip; or, don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s mostly small stuff.   I’ve adopted a work place culture that encourages a healthy balance between one’s work and home life.  I’m now embarking on the stage of life when the children are out of the nest and it is time to redefine my future.  I look to my older mentors who have shared their successes and failures as I figure out what that future should be. 

So hats off to all of my many mentors who have taught me so much over my 30 years at Missoula Aging Services.  I have had the opportunity to see the future through their eyes and they have helped me understand that life is not something to rush nor waste. What a privilege it is to have a job that has allowed me to listen to and seek to understand a generation of extraordinary older adults.  To them I owe my deepest gratitude.

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services and thanks for listening.