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60 is the New 40, and Our Kūpuna Are Leading the Way

“We need really creative solutions to help seniors stay active, and not just physically…seniors have a lot to give.”

That’s what Sherry McLemore of Creative Grant Writing Services, LLC told me during our Kūpuna Collective member check-in. I was checking in because it’s been well over a year since this community of kūpuna-facing organizers was formed. Through surveys and interviews, we wanted to know how well we’ve supported our diverse membership’s work and how we can continue to do that better.

But our members, many kūpuna themselves, proved to be a fountain of not just feedback but ideas for change. 

They spoke of ways kūpuna are truly solution-makers to be uplifted rather than a tsunami of problems to be resolved. In our check-in, Sherry wondered whether there was already a place asking kūpuna what are your gifts, what are your talents, and where are your gifts needed right now. If there wasn’t, she wondered what we could do to make spaces like that happen.

“60 is the new 40,” Sherry says, and she suspects that finding ways to connect kūpuna to meaningful efforts across the islands could play a critical role in their long-term health, as well as ours.

At a general meeting earlier this year, Collective members Tosa Lobendahn and Paula Fitzell from After-School All-Stars shared how they’ve connected students facing upticks in racism with elders who’ve experienced violent hatred and discrimination in their lifetimes. Their experiences were rich and insightful, stretching back even as far as the holocaust. They report how this kind of intergenerational work challenges damaging, ageist stereotypes held against both keiki and kūpuna that keep them from seeing the other for who they are. With that mutual clarity came healing and connections with impact that is simply immeasurable.

Of course, the value of kūpuna volunteer work is not restricted to what kūpuna can give to keiki. It’s certainly more than enough if it’s healing for kūpuna themselves.

Earlier this summer, I found myself at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s on-site community garden in Kapolei. I was helping with just one of many Hui Māla ‘Ai initiatives to provide garden fresh produce for that day’s distribution event. Before we left, we marveled at how much the space had transformed.

When I first saw the garden in April, there was only a long patch of kalo, three large wooden planters, and some papaya trees lining a loose pathway near the boxes. A few months passed, and suddenly whole new crescents of ground were opened up, ready for life to take root. Fresh, green pumpkin vines began to crawl across the surface. Keiki trees of all kinds stood guard, bordering the upturned soil. We wondered who in the world had put in all that effort under the searing heat of the Kapolei sun, and that’s when we met Uncle Clyde.

“My name is Clyde. Like Bonnie and Clyde,” joked the quiet and friendly uncle who was putting in all that effort, working to transform the garden from something great into something more. He told us he was retired and had recently lost a loved one after intensely caring for them for many years. He was clearly no stranger to hardship, and his story was far from carefree. Yet here he was, finding a fresh start by volunteering to mālama the garden that in return was caring for him.

“It’s like therapy,” he told me when I saw him a few months later in August. By then, more and more ground had opened up and flourishing plants lined the way. The papaya trees, once bare, now bore at least 30 fruits each tree. Vines crawled up makeshift structures, creating shade where there once was none. He showed us his sunflowers, and they grew proudly up towards the sky. 

Community spaces like what Uncle Clyde has are far from universally accessible, and organizers like Tosa and Paula aren’t able to serve all kūpuna and keiki through their work. But instead of discouraging us, this seems to only energize our members to make more of those spaces a reality for all our communities. 

Working with the Kūpuna Collective has blessed me with moments like these, incredible examples of what happens when we make space for life at all ages to flourish while challenging our systems to hold those spaces, too. 

Our only question is: what can we, and our kūpuna, do to help? 

Kūpuna are strong, knowledgeable, and important foundations to our families, our communities, and society at large. Do you know of volunteer or paid opportunities for kūpuna that honor our elders as active change-makers with a critical role in shaping our present and future? If so, please send them our way at kiara@hiphi.org or kupunacollective@hiphi.org.

Kiara Louise D. Bacasen

Kiara Louise D. Bacasen

Kūpuna Collective Special Project Coordinator VISTA
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