I recently attended the Senior Symposium 2025, along with 140 others. It was sponsored by Wilshire Community Services, SLO County Community Foundation, the Villages, CHW Hospitals and Sierra Vista Medical Center. The goal was to bring like-minded people together to exchange ideas and to develop a plan to meet the needs of seniors, the fastest growing population group.
At the closing, 100 percent of those voting indicated that they were either “very interested” or “interested” in continuing the work done that day.
It especially interested me that 55 percent of those voting agreed that we need to change the “American Dream” from one of ‘independence’ to one of ‘interdependence’ in order to survive.
The dream of ‘independence’ served our country well during its formative years, but is no longer an effective model. Imagine yourself, as an independent driver, coming to an intersection with a stoplight and driving confidently through on a green light. No matter the desire for independence, you are dependent on the driver going in the other direction to obey the red signal and stop. Each of us depends daily on fellow citizens to obey societal laws. Our world is too complex for independence. Besides, doing for others and having them do for us can do much to reduce stress and send good endorphins coursing through our bodies.
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Our country faces a frightening time of economic instability. Governments at all levels are drastically cutting budgets, leaving our most vulnerable members without needed services.
Until our economic situation improves, and we are assured that it will be a slow process, we must find other ways to support these groups. The vulnerable do not have the luxury or the means to sustain themselves during this long recovery period.
A universal theme seemed to be that we can no longer depend on government to care for the riskiest population groups — seniors, children, the disabled and the mentally ill, to mention a few.
What I heard succinctly was that we must recreate the old-fashioned sense of community. Remember the days of barn raisings, community planting and harvesting, taking in less fortunate neighbors and relatives. Each of us in our own neighborhoods must begin to create community where we live — people who care about each other and are willing to help when a neighbor is in need, temporarily or permanently. In my own neighborhood, a group of people are building the Oak Park Community, neighbor by neighbor.
Parents, grandparents, neighbors must pick up the slack in schools. They must help provide transportation and care for sick or disabled persons; must open their hearts to others in need.
Adults must set an example of service for their children. RSVP, a program of senior volunteers reports that volunteers 55 and older provide over 200,000 hours of service yearly to the community. Studies continue to show that prevention is cheaper than picking up the broken pieces.
We must begin teaching a sense of and need for community at the pre-school level and continue it through the school years, so that we can survive economic downturns. When we cut care to the elderly living in their own homes, they become institutionalized, costing us more money. When we cut the quality of education, and can’t provide critical thinkers for the next generation of workers, it will take years to recover. We might save immediate dollars if we put foster kids on their own at age 18, but statistics show that this decreases their success rate and costs more in the long run. We must act now, using existing communities to teach interdependence — Boys and Girls Clubs, schools, Scouting, churches and other such organizations. Let’s help and support them to expand their programs which encourage youth and adults to perform acts of service in their community.
From my perspective, the trickle-down approach to the economy doesn’t seem to work. How about a trickle-up plan where we start with our youngest citizens who are gathered in these settings and teach them the importance of interdependence and community and watch it trickle up until we have a cadre of adults who care about and for each other.
When children and seniors and adults in between are engaged in their communities, it will be more cost effective and encompassing.
Judythe Guarnera is a retired program director in the fields of aging and volunteerism.