The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that by 2030 all of the baby boomers will have reached the age of 65 and by 2035, older adults will outnumber children in this country for the first time in its history.
Global projections on aging show similar trends. The United Nations reports that the number of older people in the world is projected to be 1.4 billion in 2030 and 2.1 billion in 2050, and could rise to 3.1 billion in 2100.
It isn’t difficult to create a long list of the challenges that could arise from a rapidly aging world, and too often the senior care industry does just that by focusing on negative outcomes and the “clinical” part of the aging experience, such as frailty, falls, behaviors associated to dementia, rehospitalizations and the overprescription of antipsychotic medications.
Yet, there is much to be said about aging that is positive, and focusing on the benefits of growing old can increase the success of communities worldwide by making them more intergenerational and interdependent. By providing opportunities for older adults to be happy, healthy, connected and independent, the senior care industry can improve across the board.
The “Age-Related Positivity Effect” was a term coined in 2005 by researchers Mara Mather and Laura Carstensen. Their research showed that older people are able to focus on and emphasize positive emotions in their lives and diminish the negative ones. The ability to edit out negative emotions is not the only superpower of older adults! Other research has shown that aging can improve a person’s resiliency by helping them “bounce back” in spite of difficulties with money, poor health and negative personal experiences. The power of resiliency is highlighted in John Leland’s latest book, “Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old.” Leland builds on the work of Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and finds that older adults unlock true happiness by focusing the time they have left on emotions, people and activities that bring them the most joy.
The defining feature of a successful long-term care or senior living community should be that it provides all residents, no matter their current abilities or preferences, abundant opportunities to live a joyful and purposeful life each day. There are several ways to do this:
• Take the time to listen. The loneliness, helplessness and boredom that many older adults face not only in senior living facilities but in communities at large, can be alleviated through social engagement and interaction. Studies have shown a correlation between socialization and increased health and wellbeing for older adults. A good way to promote this is to set aside time to listen to the needs and concerns of each resident in a face-to-face conversation without interruption. “Engage at Every Age” is the theme of this year’s Older Americans Month and active listening is an important step toward meaningful engagement.
• Adapt over time. It is a common mistake to believe that people over a certain age are “all the same” and that an engagement strategy can be a “one-size-fits-all” experience. In fact, the needs and preferences of those at age 65, 75, 85 and 95 will be quite different and the most successful engagement plans will recognize this and change across time with the resident.
• Track success and expand it. Using technology, rather than paper-based options, to support data tracking and evaluation will allow staff members in senior living communities to have more time for the socialization and planning outlined above. Real-time analysis of the changing needs and preferences of each resident means the community can provide more of what works, to those who need it most.
• Join the anti-ageism movement. There are a number of strong voices that have started to speak out against the harmful impact of ageism and the power of embracing aging. Among them are Ashton Applewhite, Tracey Gendron and Jeanette Leardi. Linked Senior has joined this movement by creating an Old People are Cool campaign to confront harmful ageism which we believe prevents our communities from reaching their maximum potential. Our Manifesto, created in partnership with older adults, asks each of us to support intergenerational collaboration.
A rapidly aging world will no doubt present caregivers, families, and senior living communities with challenges. But the positive will outweigh the negative!
Communities that work in partnership with older adults, tapping into their reserves of wisdom, positive thinking and boundless resiliency will be more innovative, inclusive and ultimately successful.
Charles de Vilmorin is the CEO and co-founder of Linked Senior.