Surfing the “Silver Tsunami”

The aging of our population, or ‘Silver Tsunami,’ as it’s often called, is not something in the future that requires preparation. That’s why it’s called a tsunami, a wave created by an earthquake. Ken Dychtwald was one of the first people to call this trend an “Age Wave.” If we want to be able to surf this huge wave, we need to be ready. Most communities aren’t even close to ready. The waves are already here. They’re huge, and growing fast.

When I was a teenager, I lived in Puerto Rico. Some of the biggest and best waves hit the northwestern corner of the island, about 60 miles from where I lived in San Juan. When I lived there, a few of the older, sophisticated teenagers managed to find a way to go up there to surf. People came from all over the world to surf Rincon, and still do. It is breathtakingly beautiful, with big, dangerous waves. I didn’t have a board. Like many younger teens, I learned to body surf and got sunburned on a regular basis. The older kids who were serious surfers hung out together, practiced like crazy, and became what we called “cool.” They were really good before they even considered heading over to Rincon. Not many kids surfed Rincon, but some did and returned with stories about how they surfed the big waves and survived.

Those surfers could probably teach all of us a thing or two about surfing the Silver Tsunami. Here are my take-aways from my experiences in Puerto Rico – what I learned second-hand from tales told by kids who went, surfed, and talked about it.

  1. Understand the big wave and consider it a priority. Too many communities are still not planning for this Silver Tsunami. Planning requires imagining the world and what it will look like 10 to 20 years from now, with a totally different proportion of old people, many with limited resources. The first step is to see this trend, and consider it a community, state and national priority.  Over the decades serious surfers have seen the waves as a priority. They’ve known when the big ones would hit Rincon, and what to do.
  2. Know the board, the waves and the moves. Communities need to study the issue; understand the demographic trend and what it means; look at community models; and map projected needs, services and gaps. What will this trend mean in terms of needs and challenges for the over-65 population? How will they live and get around the community? What will be required to facilitate mobility (many more handicapped parking places, I can assure you!). How can communities maintain and develop appropriate infrastructure, healthcare, housing, transportation, and social services? How can this be done given limited financial resources? Where are there models of communities that have responded to the Silver Tsunami? Many surfers, who did more than just try it out, learned about the basics, studied and practiced the sport, and then developed some real skills, in order to get a grip on the sport.
  3. Test things out and run scenarios. Scenario planning allows communities to experiment with ideas, strategies, models and different approaches to meet the emerging needs. What is already very clear is that we cannot simply project our current systems forward, based upon the current health system, social services and community infrastructure. It is not financially feasible or sustainable. This means testing out models that incorporate core elements of what’s working now, combined with innovative approaches for dealing with projected needs of older adults in 10 to 20 years. It requires the type of systems thinking that includes creating simulations of different future possibilities and building from the learnings that simulations provide. Simulations are some of the most exciting, engaging and useful ways to test out ideas. Surfers study the waves, and look for opportunities to do many types of runs that test and refine their skills in different situations before going all out.
  4. Prioritize.  None of us and none of our communities have an endless supply of time, talent or resources. Effective community planning allows the community, leaders and community organizations to prioritize and focus on what is most important. What’s most important to one community may not be a top priority for another. What’s important is determined by community needs, resources and capacity. Setting community priorities is essential, and often painful yet liberating community exercise. It brings focus, clarity and broad-based support to a shared vision and mission.  A very small minority of surfers spend their lives going after the big waves and riding them as if there were no tomorrow. Most surfers have limited time and resources, and choose their trips, and their waves, carefully based upon their priorities and limits.
  5. Practice and develop pilots. With careful homework, effective planning, and prioritizing, communities are ready to develop new initiatives. Although some are able to move forward at full speed, most do not. Even with good research about what works, careful planning, and effective simulations, a new initiative is filled with mysteries that are best discovered through an organic process. This means developing the initiative in stages, usually starting with a pilot. The pilot is a wonderful small-scale opportunity to test out programs, strategies and relationships in a way that is lower risk than moving full steam ahead. This allows groups to make mistakes, build skill and expertise in the pilot, and then transfer this to the roll-out of the initiative. Although I was not a “real” surfer girl when I lived in Puerto Rico, most of us who did body-surfing had friends who surfed with boards. They started with small waves, built their skills through multiple runs, and worked up to the bigger challenges.

An analogy can be stretched only so far. Although there are many parallels between riding the Silver Tsunami and surfing, there are important differences. One is that we all are actually the Silver Tsunami that we’re riding. Aging affects all of us, as part of life is growing old if we don’t die prematurely. That’s life. It’s not a sport. It’s the core of our community life that we’re discussing. Planning and developing resources isn’t a game. It’s critically needed, and incumbent upon all of us to respond to this Silver Tsunami. We need to ensure that our communities, our states and our country place a high priority on caring for this huge group of elders who are currently reshaping the world as we have known it. The way we’ve handled services and resources for older adults won’t work if we try to move this current reality into the future. It’s unsustainable. What we need are elements from our current models mixed with family, community and volunteer initiatives that we’ve only just begun to develop. Perhaps that’s a bit like the first skiers who tried snowboarding. But, that’s for another article.

 Anne Hays Egan is a health systems and community planning consultant with over three decades of experience working with communities, foundations, governments, and nonprofit groups across the country. She excels at leading communities in planning, using cutting edge tools in interactive ways that engage and energize people. Mapping and simulations move people through a complex process with ease, helping communities discover the answers that lie within, creating a path forward to a sustainable future.

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