The celebration of the young—however and whatever numbers you may use to define—barrages our senses daily.
In advertising and other forms of media, it’s clear that American society often worships at the altar of youth—including billions spent trying to look or feel young. Against that backdrop, a group of Oak Park-area volunteers has built a movement that celebrates an often-overlooked part of our population: seniors, a group that they define as anyone 60 years of age or older.
And the latest byproduct of their effort comes in the form of Celebrating Seniors Week. Between May 15th and May 22nd, more than 40 events will be held throughout Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park in conjunction with the endeavor.
Annually, the group holds its weeklong celebration to coincide with Older Americans Month, sponsored by the Administration on Community Living, organized under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Nearly all of the events are free of charge for all comers, and every event is free for anyone 60-plus. The sessions are geared toward education and entertainment, featuring the creative ideas of community organizations such as libraries, park districts, hospitals and senior service agencies.
In addition, local businesses are inviting seniors to go out and shop or dine during the week. Many will honor seniors by offering dining deals, special discounts and promotions.
A kickoff event is on Thursday, May 8th at The Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, 178 Forest Ave. in Oak Park. On that night, the group honors the 2014 “60 Over 60” Class, a wide-ranging collection of men and women whose efforts have made a profound impact on the three communities.
This year’s wrap-up event will be highlighted by an address from Harry Porterfield, the 85-year-old newscaster who exemplifies the prototype of an active older adult who still has plenty of contributions to make. Past keynote speakers have included former Chicago Bulls basketball player Sidney Green and ABC 7’s Roz Varon, a River Forest resident.
Four years ago, communicating seniors’ vitality and far-reaching impact inspired Jim Flanagan to create the Celebrating Seniors Coalition, the volunteer corps that organizes events each year. A lifelong resident of Oak Park and River Forest, Flanagan is a financial planning expert who specializes in serving people at or near retirement.
Over his career, he has come into contact with numerous men and women who still have plenty of talents and wisdom to share.
“Too often, we take for granted all of the hard work, sacrifice and creativity that previous generations contributed to enable our way of life today,” said Flanagan. “Our community is a great place to grow and age—and we owe a big thanks to those who have come before us for nurturing the area’s outstanding quality of life.”
Oak Park and River Forest township governments are sponsors of Celebrating Seniors. The organizations work with those who have traditionally “quiet voices”—individuals with needs in the areas of mental health, youth services and senior services.
So having an organization like Celebrating Seniors, to raise awareness of seniors and the role that they play in the community—as well as the ways in which they can receive support—is an invaluable resource, said River Forest Township Supervisor Carla Sloan.
“There is so much good that the townships are able to do on a daily basis, to make a real positive difference in many people’s lives, and in their quality of life,” said Sloan. “We are grateful for any opportunity to shine a light on that.”
Flanagan noted that seniors represent a strong economic force as well.
“Even if you don't consider old people to be cool or worthy of celebration, without a question there is power in aging,” he said. “They have worked hard for many years and frequently have built up savings and assets that should cause any business owner to see the wisdom of hitching their wagon to this star.”
Helping Seniors in Need
At first, they were all united by hardship—one a victim of financial exploitation, a couple in their 80s victimized by identify theft, a woman whose home was infected with bed bugs and two seniors whose home sustained recurring flooding.
Now, thanks to the Celebrating Seniors Coalition, each has something much more positive in common: all are among a rising number of seniors in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park who have received financial support in the midst of their difficulties.
Comprised of individuals, businesses, congregations, government agencies and other individuals and organizations that serve the senior population, the Celebrating Seniors Coalition counts financial support for seniors in need among its four main objectives.
Through its first three years, the Coalition netted $30,000. Those funds are used to support a variety of initiatives to benefit seniors.
Flanagan related one story of a couple in need of a washer and dryer.
“They had been victims of identity theft, leaving their financial affairs in shambles,” Flanagan said. “They used their money to pay the bills that were in their name. They thought it was the right thing to do. With no money to buy new machines and in their early 80s, they began walking to the Laundromat. After applying for support from Celebrating Seniors, they’re not walking to the Laundromat anymore.”
Another instance where Celebrating Seniors has made a difference was paying a senior’s water bill to stop his water from being shut off.
“Seniors have played and continue to play significant roles in our communities,” Flanagan says. “Looking out for them is the least we can do—they deserve our respect, appreciation and protection.”
The non-profit organization has also purchased eyeglasses, hearing aids, mattresses, and even helped some seniors get their teeth fixed. The coalition has assisted seniors in moving by providing a truck and volunteers.
Celebrating Seniors allocates up to half of its fund balance to help senior citizens (defined as 60 or older) in a crisis situation. Among the criteria established by the organization are that a client must have a quantifiable need that can be remedied, must qualify for Circuit Breaker, must exhibit a financial need and must be a resident of Oak Park, River Forest or Forest Park.
Celebrating Seniors’ other three objectives have been to facilitate cooperation between the business community, government agencies and non-profit organizations for the benefit of the senior population; to promote senior groups and organizations that serve persons 60 and older; and to raise public awareness of issues affecting seniors.
The Movement Spreads
Expanding beyond Oak Park and the immediate environs has always been part of Flanagan’s vision for Celebrating Seniors.
That dream was achieved in 2013, when nearly 30 other communities, from Joliet, Shorewood, and Plainfield to Riverside, LaGrange and Hinsdale, adopted the Celebrating Seniors model and, with support from the founding volunteers, celebrated seniors in their respective areas.
“There’s no reason why this cannot be duplicated all across the country,” said Flanagan. “Seniors are growing in prominence, and have plenty to offer, anywhere you go.”
Meanwhile, volunteers are enthused about this year’s lineup, which includes:
*The kickoff event on May 8th (noted above) honoring the 2014 “60 Over 60” honorees at the 19th Century Charitable Association;
*Treasure or Trinket, an antiques road show from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 15th at the Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave.;
*A "Living Life" luncheon that includes entertainment, at Noon on Thursday, May 15th at the Howard Mohr Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd., Forest Park.
*A Senior Resource Fair from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21st at The Lock-Up Self Storage, 1900 N. Narragansett in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood, organized by the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce.
The week will culminate with the closing luncheon on Thursday, May 22nd at Concordia University in River Forest. Currently the co-anchor of the 11 a.m. newscast for CBS 2 Chicago, Porterfield will share from his long and storied career in broadcast journalism.
The fee for the luncheon, to be held at the Koehneke Community Center from Noon to 1:30 p.m., is $20. For more information about that or any other Celebrating Seniors event, visit www.CelebratingSeniors.net or visit the organization’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/CelebratingSeniors.