What do I want to be when I grow up?

I’m still working on that...

Most folks have an idea of what their “golden years” will look like: Taking care of yourself, doing what you want to do on your own timeline. If you live in Massachusetts, that also might include somewhere without snow.

Too often, however, there are pieces of the puzzle that come together in a different way than expected. Physical challenges, emotional challenges and financial challenges can all impact how we make our transition into our older years.

We are told to think about how much money we will need to live on in a lifestyle that that would make us comfortable, and where to live so we have access to activities that bring us pleasure and relaxation and are near to (or far from) friends or family. We don’t prepare as mindfully, however, for some of the speed bumps that can impact our journey -- the physical ones and the existential ones.

As we move through life, there are many opportunities to answer the question “why am I here?” As we age, this may change for some of us. If we build identity on our work, where does that identity go when we retire? If we build it on social connections, then if we have develop a chronic illness that prevents our access to those connections, where does that reflection of our self in others reside?.

It is imperative that communities create seamless social integration of all ages within their infrastructure, in order to improve community health and cohesiveness. A 15-year-old and an 80-year-old  have much more in common than we assume. They will both tell you people don’t always value what they say. They both have aches and pains -- growing or receding. They both want to do things their own way, on their own timeline. People always move their stuff and then they can’t find anything. Except the remote control…

Creating seamless social integration means learning how to listen to one another. This happens by spending time together. This happens by improving access --whether impeded by mobility or by age (whether that 15-year-old doesn’t have a driver’s license or that 80-year-old is no longer uncomfortable driving). We are all uncomfortable with that with which we are unfamiliar. The key to community is familiarity. It is the 15-year-old who teaches the 80-year-old what a meme is. And the 80-year-old sharing Carol Burnett’s curtain dress.

Communities where social integration is the norm are communities that are healthier. Communities that are healthier are more able to support members who are adjusting to transitions in their lives -- anywhere on the age, gender, cultural or economic spectrum. They are communities that draw others. These communities challenge their members to learn about one another, to see one another, and to respectfully communicate differences.

Aging gracefully isn’t about wrinkles or an extra 20 pounds. It’s about creating community where you feel supported, valued, included and respected. With this, we can all be more confident reaching out to ask for feedback from others around about how best to support their needs, which we then make happen by seamless integration into our lives.

I am fortunate to live in a community where I feel there is an open dialog around how to be inclusive, respectful of our different backgrounds, our ages, where we worked, who we loved, and whatever our physical or emotional challenges may have been. I hope you feel that fortunate, too.

Lucia Coale, LICSW, is a member of the Salem for All Ages Task Force.