May is Older Americans Month. Initially “Senior Citizens Month,” the name came from a meeting in April 1963 between President John F. Kennedy and members of the National Council of Senior Citizens. The name was changed in 1965.

Ron Smith Maricopa

This year’s theme is “Aging Unbound.”

It is important to acknowledge contributions of older people — to our economic well-being as a country, in defense of our freedoms and in shaping the character of our nation. Their wealth of knowledge and practical wisdom enrich everyone.

In Native American communities, elders are respected for their wisdom and life experiences. They are expected to pass down their knowledge. In India, elders are the heads of their families. In eastern Asia, children are raised knowing some day they will swap roles with their parents. Respect is also a driving force in African American treatment of their elderly. Latin culture is centered around family as several generations often live under one roof.

In Western cultures there is fear of death — and aging that precedes it.

Ageism is prevalent. We celebrate youth.

Ageism is discrimination. It compounds physical and mental problems caused by the aging process by reinforcing the myth growing old is a terrible experience. Instead of being a time of all the rewarding experiences possible in later life, our society tends to reinforce the view that this period is simply the consequence of survival.

In 2004, France passed legislation to protect its elderly when it had one of the highest rates of pensioner suicides. During a freak heat wave, more than 15,000 elderly citizens died. Bodies weren’t discovered until weeks later. France changed its civil code to require adult children to stay connected with geriatric family members. Recent heat waves in the U.S. showed similar consequences.

Let’s use Older Americans Month to start our personal eradication of ageism. Treat older individuals with respect and avoid snap decisions about their capabilities based on age or appearance. Speak up if you see hostility or blatant discrimination toward an older individual.

And applaud the opportunities and benefits afforded us by our wonderful older Americans!

Ron Smith is a living-in-place advocate, a member of the Age-Friendly Maricopa Advisory Committee, a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist and a Certified Living in Place Professional.