Your starter for Ten: Social entrepreneurs take on longevity and aging

How 10 Ashoka Fellows are redefining the experience of aging in countries around the world.

By Chris Cusano

Talking to a social entrepreneur usually leaves you with mind-bending ideas, double your daily dose of inspiration, and an itch to join in and take action. But what happens when you bring ten social entrepreneurs together for one joint conversation? Or better yet, ten conversations?

When Ashoka’s Next Now: Aging team set out to learn how social entrepreneurs are addressing and anticipating our most urgent aging challenges, the concept of a weekly “Roundtable” took shape. (More on that here). Every week, Ashoka Fellows shared how they are working to drastically improve our experience of aging—and dialogued with peers seeking to do the same. Half the time was spent listening, half in conversation.

Here’s a peak into the room to meet ten Ashoka Fellows and discover how they’re working towards a future where no one is left behind.

Anne Basting, Timeslips

Anne agreed to speak at the first Roundtable, unpacking her motto Forget memory, try imagination!, a transformative concept in elder care. Lost memories or dementia create crises of communication, of identity, of sadness. Creativity and imagination never leave us, explains Anne, and are so powerful that they can revive relationships, break social isolation, and bring joy. Read our interview with Anne here.

DY Suharya, Alzheimers Indonesia

A week later, we reconvened. I knew DY would wear purple, because she always wear purple, the color of the international movement for Alzheimer’s and dementia awareness, the color she was wearing when we first met in Bandung in 2017. DY’s a pioneer, creating the first generation of institutions, practices, and values that shape Indonesia’s public-health response. Don’t underestimate memory loss! is not just a slogan but a campaign that has spread from Indonesia to Bangladesh and Turkey.

Ole Kassow, Cycling Without Age

Next, the Roundtable visited Denmark. Ole started rolling around the streets of Copenhagen as a young boy, pushing his father’s wheelchair at a leisurely pace and relishing the roles of chauffer, guide, companion. Maybe it’s no wonder that one day, on instinct, Ole started offering trishaw rides to seniors living in retirement homes. A few million miles later, and CWA has over 30 thousand volunteers in at least 50 cities worldwide. What magic takes place when two people take a ride together?

Sergio Serapiao, Labora Tech

At the next session, Sergio joined from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to explain how society is so obsessed with youth that we have forgotten about the strengths that come with age. Labor markets often squander the value of older workers, ushering them into retirement before they want or need it. Adults socialize through work, Sergio explains. Retirement can threaten those social connections for many people, and lead to a period of decline. So, let’s invent new forms of work for seniors, custom-designed, flexible, and productive. My new interview with Sergio appears in Forbes.

Anil Patil, Carers Worldwide

You might not find Anil’s name on a list of people working strictly in something called “aging,” though there is a wide region that intersects with his life’s work. Wherever we look, we find carers — those whose lives are dedicated in whole or in part to another. Illness, disability, advanced age — whatever professional care these conditions require, unpaid, informal, family carers form the invisible army that makes public health systems work. So maybe it’s time to ask our care-givers: how are you doing? I interviewed Anil about his work in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Marc Freedman, Encore

“I started out as a young person interested in the lives of older people, and now I’m an older person myself and I’m interested in everybody,” Marc shared as he Zoomed in from the Bay Area. Marc first hypothesized, then proved for all to see, that America’s seniors are a perfect match for its youngsters. Matching and mentoring programs between them made plain the immense talent, love, and opportunity unleashed by these pairings. Through intergenerational changemaking, Marc says, maybe we can not just fix problems, but fix ourselves.

Al Etmanski, PLAN

Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack are partners in life and partners in impact. They called in from Vancouver to show us that disability is another region that overlaps with aging. Following WWII, for the first time in history, children with disability began to outlive their parents, creating a deep and profoundly personal crisis in long-term care. Interdependency was the solution, families coming together and making pacts to ensure continuity of care long into the future. Al says that this kind of self-organized, freely given, “natural caring” is in fact the backbone of community and democracy.

Beka Ntsanwisi, Soccer Grannies

Don’t let the fun and games fool you. In South Africa’s townships, Beka’s soccer grannies are booting stereotypes about who older women are and what they can achieve. “One day, we were enjoying the park when a soccer ball rolled over to us. One of the women kicked it back to them, then it happened again, and soon we were all learning soccer.” It’s good to be active, and even better to combat the belief that dementia is a sign of witchcraft, a grave accusation that creates fear and invites violence. Soon enough, there were traveling teams and international tournaments. Watch the soccer grannies in action here.

Ximena Abogabir, Travesia 100

Ximena became an Ashoka Fellow in 1995, elected for her groundbreaking work in environmental education in Chile. “Then one day, I was 70 years old. Society didn’t have any more roles for me to play. I had to invent a new role for myself, new meaning and purpose.” And what about everyone else? As more and more Chileans embark on a “Journey to 100,” Ximena helps them plan the trip of a lifetime.

Lennon Flowers, The Dinner Party

There are Roundtables, there are dinner tables, and then there’s the Dinner Party. We all, sooner or later, grieve the loss of a loved one. Grief wears many faces, and often we confront them alone. But why let grief isolate us, asks Lennon Flowers? Can we transfigure the pain we feel in private into a love shared among friends? Today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings are leading the way, starting with candid conversation and home-cooked meals.

It’s clear from these snapshots that our world’s leading changemakers are already rewriting the narrative around aging—working towards intergenerational harmony, dignity and purpose for all seniors. From these Roundtables, we learned five lessons that will be pivotal to the new paradigm.

But this is just the start of the conversation — and maybe that’s the most exciting part.

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