By Phyllis Segal
Nearly 50 years ago, President Kennedy’s bold dream to land on the moon was realized. I can recall exactly where I was on July 20, 1969, watching Neil Armstrong describe his “one small step” on the moon’s surface as a “giant leap for mankind.”
Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans erupted in cheers. Strangers enjoying brunch in an iconic dining room, came together to celebrate a young President’s audacious vision to “go to the moon in this decade” and a nation that stayed the course, turning that dream into reality.
President Kennedy said that we would reach for the moon “not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
JFK had another “moonshot” in him, one he spoke about often. While this one doesn’t require rocket science, it still waits to be achieved. In contrast to flying into space, it would create something here on earth, with older adults — an untapped resource of what he described as “incalculable value” — routinely rising up to serve society.
As Marc Freedman writes in his new book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, Kennedy had an ambitious vision to create a National Service Corps mobilizing older people to serve their communities and young people — “an ideal outlet for those whose energy, idealism and ability did not suddenly end in retirement.”
“It is not enough to have added new years to life,” JFK said addressing Congress in February 1963. “Our objective must also be to add new life to those years.” He decried “the wall of inertia” between older adults and their communities, impoverishing both.”
President Kennedy pointed to the then-newly-launched Peace Corps, which has no upper age limit, as having “already drawn on this reservoir of talent.” Not long after this speech, three months before he was assassinated he spoke about this to a group of Peace Corps volunteers who were over 60.
One, a 76-year-old civil engineer, was on his way to Pakistan, and Kennedy expressed hope that his “desire to serve will not only inspire others … but will also indicate to many of our Americans who are getting older, as we all are, that life really is unlimited.”
Older volunteers, JFK said, show “how much talent we have in this country among those who have retired in the formal sense but who have many, many useful years ahead of them, not only in the Peace Corps but here in the United States.”
President Kennedy’s vision was the foundation on which his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver created the domestic Foster Grandparent Program as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. By 1972, 10,000 low-income Foster Grandparents were serving throughout the United States, helping children in big ways for small stipends.
In the years since President Kennedy talked about this second dream, only small steps have been taken. The Peace Corps continues to recruit a modest number of older adults as volunteers to serve abroad. And despite its highly-touted effectiveness, the number of Foster Grandparents serving in America is stalled at 22,000. Along with other national service programs, our country is being shortchanged by inadequate federal investment.
Surely, it is now time for our giant leap. In 2019, for the first time ever, there are more adults in this country over 60 than under 18. And the longevity revolution has added even more years to life.
When I saw that moon landing, I was a young woman inspired by President Kennedy to “ask what I could do for my country.” Now in my encore stage of life I want to live the answer to that question. Research at Stanford University tells me I’m not alone — more than 34 million people 50 and older want to dedicate themselves to making their corner of the world a better place. Yet that “wall of inertia” still makes it hard to find pathways and opportunities that would “add life to those years.“
On this golden anniversary, we have a chance to achieve JFK’s unrealized “moonshot.” Freedman dreams of a “national legacy corps aimed at engaging older people to transform early childhood education.” I’d like to expand what JFK started and create a modern-day version of the Foster Grandparents Program — updated with wider eligibility, higher stipends and more flexible roles. Imagine an infusion of talent as classroom helpers, home visitors, health educators, career coaches.
In the meantime, there are so many ways for older adults to connect with younger generations, to contribute our expertise and find purpose and meaning in the process. Our efforts may not constitute a moonshot, but we can still help young people reach for the stars.