The Role of Elders in Saving Planet Earth


This article examines attempts at one life-plan community to involve older residents in mitigating the effects of global warming and environmental degradation, and, drawing upon lessons learned during the author’s long career in the disability advocacy arena, offers guidance on involving older people in confronting the threats posed by climate change.

Key Words:

climate change, global warming, elder policy, disability policy, life plan community

Throughout recorded history older people have been revered in many cultures for the wisdom and judgement they bring to family life and the life of the broader community. This article examines attempts at one life-plan community to involve residents in mitigating the effects of global warming and environmental degradation. Drawing upon his experiences, the author offers general lessons for addressing these existential threats.

Promoting Climate Involvement at a Life Plan Community

The Seeds of Involvement

Kendal at Lexington (KaLex) is a not-for-profit life-plan community (also known as a continuing care retirement community [CCRC]) in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. About 190 residents live on campus, with 145 in independent living cottages and apartments, 15 to 20 in an assisting living unit, and 45 to 60 in a skilled nursing facility. My wife and I moved to KaLex in September 2019.

It is important to acknowledge that residents of life-plan communities represent a small subset of elders. Admission to a life-plan community typically involves a substantial entry fee combined with sizeable monthly service fees. Many older adults lack the financial resources to bear such costs. In addition, applicants must meet physical and cognitive health requirements to qualify for entry. Not much is known about attitudinal differences between relatively well-off life-plan community residents and the general older population. But one shouldn’t assume that no differences exist.

I spent my 42-year professional career working in the disability policy arena. For most of those years, I served as the chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization representing state agencies serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over the years the organization’s principal aim was to end reliance upon large, custodial institutions and create in their place a network of community-based services and supports dedicated to treating people with disabilities as valued, productive members of the community. To accomplish this goal, the organization sought to enlist the federal government as a full-fledged partner in financing and promoting community integration (Gettings, 2011).

Because of my professional experience, I arrived at KaLex with an abiding interest in public policy but no more than a passing concern about the impact of global warming. I was certainly aware of growing international concerns about the Earth’s changing climate, but no more so than about other major societal issues.

Communicating With Environmental Advocates at Other Kendal Affiliates

My interest in climate change began to take shape in the spring of 2021 when I joined a small group of Kendal residents discussing the possibility of establishing an organization to represent elders concerned about climate change. Those discussions reached a milestone in the summer of 2021 when Senior Stewards Acting for the Environment (SSAFE) was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization.

Most SSAFE members live at one of the 13 Kendal affiliates, but organizational leaders hope to include residents of other life-plan communities in 2022 and beyond. There are nearly 2,000 CCRCs in the United States offering different types of housing arrangements and levels of care (AARP, 2019). SSAFE activities are carried out by three volunteer teams, focusing on campus greening activities, awareness and education, and public policy. I am a member of the SSAFE policy advocacy team.

Formation of CAP

Once local SSAFE participants got together, the need to create a counterpart group at KaLex soon became evident. Participants agreed to call the group Climate Action Partners (CAP), describing themselves as “KaLex residents who are committed to arresting the dangerous effects of climate change.” The group’s mission statement says that CAP “strives to inform and engage KaLex residents about climate change issues and promising interventions, including ‘green’ resource conservation initiatives …” Acting in tandem with SSAFE, the statement also indicates that CAP “promote[s] public awareness and solutions to the manifold issues posed by climate change” (CAP, 2021a).

Campus-wide Survey

To gather information on the related attitudes and interests of KaLex residents, CAP members created an online survey questionnaire to “determine the types of information residents might need to contribute meaningfully to CC [climate change] solutions, compatible with their capacities and interests” (CAP, 2021b). Of the 86 residents responding to the survey (a 45% response rate), three quarters expressed some level of interest in learning more about climate change through speakers and documentary films. Residents also endorsed adding books on climate change to the campus library, expanding coverage of environmental issues in KaLex’s monthly newsletter, and issuing periodic progress reports on achieving the resource conservation goals of the corporation’s 2020–2025 strategic plan.

‘Survey results demonstrated the formidable educational and attitudinal barriers to enlisting residents as foot soldiers in the battle against climate change.’

Survey respondents, however, exhibited much less interest in becoming actively involved in mitigating the effects of climate change. Only 24% of respondents expressed a willingness to help implement the environmental goals of KaLex’s strategic plan. Even fewer KaLexers (17%) expressed interest in joining other Kendal affiliates in advocating for changes in public and private environmental policies aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change.

Survey results demonstrated the formidable educational and attitudinal barriers to enlisting residents as foot soldiers in the battle against climate change. But they also highlighted promising areas for follow-up activities.

Policy Advocacy

Using “yes” and “maybe” responses to the survey question on participating in advocacy campaigns, CAP created an email distribution list. This Advocacy Network list was used on several occasions to encourage participating residents to support SSAFE calls for action on pending federal legislation and regulatory initiatives. The total number of messages sent by KaLex residents is unknown, but those who used the SSAFE-provided link to contact members of Congress was less than 30 spread over three distinct calls-for-action. CAP hopes to expand participation in future advocacy ‘letter writing” campaigns.

Expanded Library Collection

About a dozen books on climate change have been added to the KaLex library via donations (mostly by CAP members) and selected purchases. A one-page summary of each book helps KaLex residents choose books matching their interests. These summaries are in a loose-leaf binder on the same “science” shelf as the newly acquired climate change books.

Encouraging On-Campus Resource Conservation

In June 2021 CAP launched a campaign to convince residents to use washers, dryers, dishwashers, and other electric appliances during off-peak hours when energy and demand rates are significantly lower. Several articles promoting awareness of the financial advantages of off-peak usage have appeared in the monthly newsletter, Connections, with plans for additional reminders in upcoming issues. In the year ahead, CAP intends to expand resource conservation initiatives to include water conservation and reduced use of natural gas. CAP also prepared an overview of on-campus environmental sustainability activities and plans to distribute quarterly updates to this document.

Two of these impending projects are worth highlighting. First, KaLex joined with the owners of a nearby property in sponsoring a project to remove invasive species and plant trees to buffer streams and wetlands on and near the campus. This project, which is expected to begin in the spring of 2022, is being funded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Second, a landscape design firm has recently completed a master land-use plan for the KaLex campus. The plan aims to create a more environmentally friendly and accessible campus and expand the use of outdoor spaces (3North, 2021).

Opportunities for Local Collaborations

CAP has been exploring possible collaborations with other local organizations in the pursuit of common environmental goals. The initial focus has been on drawing lessons from Washington and Lee University’s (W&L) experience. Since 2007 when it joined the Climate Commitment, a joint venture of university and college presidents, W&L has taken increasingly ambitious steps to reduce the school’s carbon footprint, with the overarching goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 (Washington and Lee University, 2021).

Recently CAP members met with the author of W&L’s “Climate Action Plan,” and they are discussing the feasibility of preparing a similar KaLex action plan in collaboration with a Board-appointed Sustainability/Solar Energy Work Group that will begin its work in early 2022.

Lecture Series on Climate Change

In September 2021, KaLex hosted a series of lectures on climate change. These lectures were organized and carried out as part of a longstanding program in which faculty members from W&L and the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington’s other institution of higher education, are invited to present on topics related to their respective areas of expertise. The climate change series included two lectures—one on the science of climate change and the other on its far-reaching ecological impacts. Both lectures were well-attended and enthusiastically received. But CAP’s effort to sign up additional Advocacy Network participants proved unsuccessful.

Budget Recommendations

During the 2022 budget development process, CAP submitted a list of operating and capital budget priorities to the Finance Office. The group recommended that funds be included in the 2022 operating budget to cover the cost of a campus-wide energy audit. The aim of the audit, CAP explained, would be to “pinpoint actions that would yield significant savings in electricity, water and gas utilization...” and “permit the staff to develop a prioritized list of energy saving projects …” (CAP, 2021c).

CAP also recommended that funds be included in the three-year capital budget to permit the installation of solar panels on the roofs of the oldest buildings. Rooftop solar collectors, CAP pointed out, would substantially reduce the nearly $300,000 annual cost of electric power. In addition, CAP recommended that capital funds be set aside to replace gas-fired heating and cooling units in some of the older cottages.

Hiring a Sustainability Consultant

Before the 2022 budget was released, the administration announced that gas-fired heating and cooling units in several older cottages were being replaced with similar equipment. CAP responded to the decision by sending an email to the KaLex CEO and Board chair, pointing out that the decision “illustrates the need for a more thoughtful, inclusive approach to decision making—one that considers the long-range consequences of global warming … A more productive approach to balancing current spending priorities with longer-range environmental consequences,” CAP noted, “would be to retain an outside sustainability consultant to help formulate a long-range plan …” for reducing carbon emissions and identifying cost-effective approaches to achieving this goal (CAP, 2021d).

‘Another major roadblock is the priority assigned to mitigating the effects of climate change vs. adapting to a warmer climate.’

The final, Board-approved budget for FY 2022 did not include funds for an outside energy audit or sustainability consultant. However, the incoming President of the KaLex Board of Directors has created a Sustainability/Solar Energy Work Group to identify steps necessary to implement the resource conservation goals of the organization’s five-year strategic plan. The group, consisting of Board members, residents, and members of the broader Lexington community, provides a vehicle to advance not only strategic plan goals, including the installation of solar panels, but other actions to improve environmental sustainability and climatic resilience. I have been appointed to the work group, along with two of my CAP colleagues.

Lessons for Engaging Older Adults in Climate-Related Activities

Clearly the scattershot initiatives CAP has undertaken during its eight months of existence have had modest impacts. This much is clear: finding the proper mix of motivational messages, learning opportunities, and hands-on experiences is a difficult task, especially when formulating and executing strategies rests in the hands of a small cadre of older men and women who have other demands on their time and energy.

Perhaps a better way of formulating generalizable lessons is to examine experiences in other policy areas and ask how they might be applied to drawing elders into the climate arena—not just at KaLex, but in all settings in which older adults live and interact with other members of the community. In the discussion that follows I draw upon my experiences in the disability policy field, as well as my climate-related work at KaLex. Readers may discover, as I have, that they have skills and insights gained during other public policy pursuits that can be effectively applied in the climate change arena.

Establishing Long-Range Goals

In any complex endeavor, it is vitally important to adopt realistic goals and a roadmap for accomplishing them: Because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not likely to get there.

I learned the importance of maintaining a goal-oriented focus during my years in the disability field. It took a century to build a nationwide system of public institutions, rooted deeply in the now discredited precepts of the eugenics movement. Attempts to replace institutions with a flexible network of community supports has been underway for more than 50 years, guided by the lodestar of community integration, inclusion, and full citizenship for people with lifelong disabilities. Yet, after half a century of reform efforts, more work lies ahead.

While the scope and nature of the challenges differ, there are parallels between historical developments in the disability field and efforts to combat the effects of climate change. In both cases, it is critical to focus on the ultimate objective and not be diverted by alluring but misguided solutions.

Governments around the world struggled during the recent COP26 conference to reach agreement on a common set of strategies for keeping the average rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st Century. Yet, unlike past U.N.-sponsored climate summits, there was widespread acceptance of the urgent need to settle unresolved issues regarding the pace of change and the distribution of responsibilities among nations.

Balancing Competing Interests

Often determining the proper locus of responsibility creates a major stumbling block to progress. This phenomenon was evident in negotiations at COP26. To what extent should the rich nations of the world—the predominate emitters of greenhouse gases during the 20th and early 21st centuries—finance climate-related projects in developing countries? Should countries heavily reliant upon fossil fuels be granted additional time to replace fossil fuels with green energy sources?

Another major roadblock is the priority assigned to mitigating the effects of climate change vs. adapting to a warmer climate. Should more funds be directed to dampening the impact of extreme weather events (e.g., floods; heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires) or to relocating homes situated in flood plains, thinning forest undergrowth, and cleaning polluted oceans and inland waterways? The tension between these two competing goals is evident in attempts by governments and private industry to adapt to new climate realities.

Finally public officials and private companies must develop plans to orchestrate the transition process. Reducing the use of fossil fuels, for example, needs to be carefully synchronized with the expansion of green energy sources. Otherwise, huge, potentially catastrophic economic recessions and human suffering will occur. Managing the transition moreover will require an extraordinary level of cooperation between governments, private industry, and individual citizens.

Partnering with Allies

Scores of climate-related organizations have sprung up over the past decade, including groups targeted to young adults, elders, and Indigenous people. Meanwhile, established organizations such as AARP have recently assumed a more active role in advocating for policies addressing climate change. The growing interest in the effects of global warming among civic and professional organizations is a positive development. But the competition for experienced staff, volunteers, charitable donations, and media exposure generates its own set of challenges.

The traditional approach to addressing such challenges is to form a coalition of like-minded interest groups to hammer out consensus proposals to present to elected and appointed policymakers. But coalition building and management poses its own challenges. During my lengthy career in the disability policy field, I learned important lessons about working with and through coalitions. First, an organization must avoid adopting a “me too” approach to advocacy that fails to reflect the specific views of its constituency, thereby surrendering control to dominate coalition members.

‘Trust is critical to any coalition’s success.’

Second, when a coalition grows too large, it becomes unwieldy and ineffective. One solution is to shift responsibility to issue-oriented work groups that act on behalf of the coalition. The overall coalition, in effect, becomes a holding company in which each member organization chooses the specific issues it wishes to focus on. For decades, the organization I represented managed to advance its interests by selectively participating in task forces that were part of a coalition of more than 100 national disability organizations. A common commitment to bettering the lives of people with disabilities held the coalition together despite marked differences in priorities among the member organizations.

Third, frequently it makes sense to participate in multiple coalitions representing different policy perspectives of interest to the organization’s constituency. In the case of my organization, it was important that we work in tandem with professional and citizens advocacy organizations. But, as a state executive branch organization, it was also important that we interact with organizations representing state Medicaid, rehabilitation, and education agencies, not to mention the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Legislatures. The challenge is to choose wisely. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself rushing from meeting to meeting and failing to have any meaningful impact on your organization’s primary issues.

Finally, trust is critical to any coalition’s success. As a coalition spokesperson you are responsible for reflecting the consensus of views among participating organizations, rather than your personal views or the views of your organization. And when the majority adopts a position that is antithetical to the interests of your constituency, you should make every effort to part ways with the majority in a manner that does not result in severing the basic ties that holds the group together.

Leadership Continuity

The loss of a key employee or a volunteer leader can seriously undermine a nonprofit organization’s mission-oriented activities. The private sector frequently offers better salaries and fringe benefits, and government agencies provide greater job stability and opportunities for advancement than nonprofit organizations typically provide—especially small, under-resourced organizations. These disadvantages can be addressed through succession planning, mentorship programs, employee-focused personnel policies, and job-sharing arrangements. Regardless of the strategies employed, attracting and retaining talented people is a key to success. Factors that motivate dedicated, productive people differ from person to person. Organizational policies, I found, must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate these differences, whether it involves alterations in work schedules, modifications in job assignments, the configuration and use of office space, or myriad other factors.

Losing a key employee or volunteer leader can be a major, if sometimes temporary, organizational setback, but also, it’s often a reason for celebration. Good employees usually move on to more responsible positions where they can make important new contributions. As their supervisor, you should feel proud of the skills and insights they developed under your tutelage. And, if you’re lucky, they may be able to help advance key objectives of your organization from a new vantage point.

Seizing Opportunities

Social progress often proceeds along an unpredictable path. Consequently, an individual or organization seeking social change must be prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. My experience in the disability policy arena illustrates this phenomenon. Since the 1960s an ever-growing share of federal spending on people with lifelong disabilities has been channeled through social entitlement programs such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, and Medicaid (Congressional Budget Office, 2021). The explosive growth in social entitlement spending has occurred because program benefits are not subject to the constraints of the regular appropriation process but based instead on the number of qualified beneficiaries. By the early 1970s, it became evident to savvy disability advocates that more could be accomplished by leveraging social entitlement benefits than by fighting to increase appropriations for categorial grant-in-aid programs. Consequently, that’s where we concentrated the bulk of our advocacy efforts.

Since the early 1980s, tax and budget reconciliation measures have been the primary vehicles for enacting sweeping domestic legislation, primarily because they permit the political party in power to avoid Senate filibusters and pass bills by a simple majority vote. This dynamic was in evidence during last year’s unsuccessful effort to enact sweeping climate change legislation as part of a $2 trillion measure encompassing major planks of the Biden Administration’s domestic agenda. Barring major changes in the Senate filibuster rule, the fate of most major domestic legislation—including the climate-related provision of the Build Back Better bill (H.R. 5376)—will continue to be tied to the passage of budget reconciliation and tax reform bills.


Once a week I attend a “strength and stretch” class at the KaLex Fitness Center. The instructor always begins the warmup exercise with the command “march it out,” with the Beatles’ tune “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (Genius Lyrics, 2022) sometimes playing in the background.

As we march into the latter stages of life, my classmates and I—along with millions of other older adults—face an important choice. Do we choose to ignore the existential threats posed by climate change and live out our lives as best we can? Or do we seek to leave a sustainable environment behind us as a legacy to future generations?

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah

La-la, how their life goes on . . .

Robert M. Gettings spent 42 years working on disability policy, serving many of those years as CEO of a nonprofit organization representing state agencies serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He is the author of Forging a Federal-State Partnership: A History of Federal Developmental Disabilities Policy (Jacksonville, FL: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities; 2011).

Photo: Kendal at Lexington, a not-for-profit life-plan community in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. 

Photo credit: Ted Burrows


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