Americans are getting older, and many are living longer. In fact, the Stanford Center on Longevity, an education and research organization, has said living to 100 will be commonplace by the middle of this century.

The center has also put forth a theory that both advantages and disadvantages in life are cumulative over time. So, if someone starts from a position of deficit, the impact of that deficit on their life compounds over time.

“And those realities show up in aging,” noted Raymond Jetson, a civic and community activist and former pastor in Baton Rouge, La.

As an example, Jetson pointed out that redlining policies and other discriminatory lending practices have resulted in lower wealth accumulations for Black communities. “And that is a truth that needs to be acknowledged,” he added.

Jetson, who spoke Tuesday at the seventh annual Retirement Coaches Association (RCA) virtual conference, said as he approached his 67th birthday in February, he faced the  "really uncomfortable reality” that the issues that Black people faced when he was growing up in the segregated South, such as poor health outcomes and shorter lifespans, remain today.

“The more I researched, there were some realities that were distinct when we look at this ‘intersection of aging and race’,” he said. Those realities, he explained, are the “unique set of circumstances that are shaped by the social, economic, and political inequalities” that Black people face throughout their lives.

To address these issues, Jetson created Aging While Black, a platform that is described on its website as a project that explores "the unique experiences of aging while Black in America."  

The platform aims to elevate the voices of Black elders by sharing their stories and realities through website engagement and community meetings. “We are very intentional on focusing on what we describe as collective learning and how do we shape and engage in information that allows us to learn in a shared way.” The hope is that it leads to action that addresses the systemic inequalities faced by aging Black people, he said.

The Aging While Black platform, Jetson said, is centered around three pillars in addressing the needs of Black elders:

• "Recalibrating the village." He said the infrastructure that is most vital for black aging and community life is insufficient. “How do we begin to recalibrate? What are the ways we need to think differently in order to create these positive outcomes for black elders?”

• Embracing innovation and rapid change. He noted that technology is a main driver in how the  world is changing. “How can we with intentionality and strategy utilize technology to enhance” and address some of the realities black elders face?” 

• Leaning into the spirit of Sankofa, an African concept of making use of the past to improve the present and build a better future. “The question is, how do we make the wisdom of the elders present in organizations, families, institutions, communities in ways that make them stronger? And how do we create theses intergenerational relationships that make for stronger communities and better lives and outcomes?” 

In response to a question posed by RCA’s founder Robert Laura on how retirement coaches and advisors can become more aware of the issues that Black elders face, Jetson said “cultural humility,” which he describes as “the willingness to be quiet and listen and to learn from others who are unlike yourself,” is key. “Cultural competency and awareness are really important. And so, as you seek to serve a population, the more you can know and understand about the cultural nuances is the more effective you will be."

For anyone seeking to engage in this “important work,” Jetson suggests the following:

1. Investigate the intersection: “Take the time to disaggregate the data and to really look at what’s happening in the experiences of the people you seek to serve,” Jetson said, noting that in terms of financial well-being, the median income for black households over the age of 55 is dramatically different than other populations and the same goes for retirement account balances. Jetson said it is important to know facts, including that there are 10,000 people a day turning 65 and that in 2034 there will be more people over age 65 than under 18. “All of those things are important, but if we are going to have a truly inclusive society or inclusive economy, it’s important to know that there are some distinctions that exist that are driven by race. And we have to be able to have those conversations without them becoming confrontational or adversarial,” he said.

2. Build and Not Fix: Jetson said it's wrong to look at communities and people as being broken and in need of fixing and remediation. “Black elders, Black communities and Black families are not places or people that are broken and need fixing. What we need to do is to recognize that there are existing assets, there are existing strengths, there are capacities. How do we learn them, how do we understand them and how do we build upon what already exists rather than believing that the good or service that I bring to market is absolutely necessary for this person to be hold complete.”

3. Center People, Not Systems and Products: Jetson said this begins with looking at the nuances of communities and “how do we begin to practice cultural humility and being willing to listen and to understand the differences that people and communities and culture bring to bear?”

Jetson said he believes one of the great challenges we face today is “the inability to truly acknowledge and discuss the impact of systemic racism on people in general and on the aging process and aging outcomes in particular.” Society, he added “misses the opportunity to have these really important conversations.”