I spent much of my career in higher education, serving for 18 years as president of Wells College. In that capacity, a critical responsibility was to create an atmosphere conducive to learning. And one of the things I discovered early on was that the best way to accomplish that mission was to listen as well as to lead and direct. Only by keeping an ear tuned to our students could I effectively serve them and meet their educational needs.
Now, as president of AARP Foundation, I find myself in a similar position, still serving as an educator in the sense of raising national awareness about the issues that so many adults 50 and older are struggling with: hunger, unaffordable or inadequate housing, low income, and social isolation. And again I find that listening is just as important as leading – listening to those we serve, listening to our volunteers and all those who help us in our mission to win back opportunity for the vulnerable 50+, listening to other like-minded organizations that seek to improve the lives of struggling seniors.
But there’s another very specific way in which my new career mirrors my former one: I am still working with young people! There were many things I found attractive about coming to AARP Foundation, and the Mentor Up initiative was definitely one of them. What a wonderful concept, to turn to our youth both to harness their energy and desire for service, and to make use of their technological savvy to help older adults who are increasingly at risk of being left behind in the information age. I just love the whole idea of “reverse mentoring” and the possibilities it holds.
Young people bring a passion and an energy to everything they do, and those qualities are contagious. They can be an inspiration to older adults, and we are already seeing that at work in Mentor Up programs, not only among the 50+ adults being served but among those of us who are helping to put programs in place. Indeed, recent research indicates that interacting with younger people actually benefits older people’s overall health.
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But perhaps even more important, when generations come together, there are benefits for everyone: individuals, communities, the young and the old. Our hope is that for the young people who become involved with Mentor Up, there will be a shift in their attitude about older people and even about getting old themselves. And that kind of learning will bear fruit for years and decades to come.
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