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Positive Aging and a Message of Hope for 2021

If there is an elder in your life you hold dear, then there is no doubt that 2020 brought a large dose of stress and worry. It truly has been “the longest year ever”. As an Aging Life Care Professional™, I have walked this path alongside my clients and their families, navigating the pandemic together. This experience changed all of us. As 2020 comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on my own practice, and how I can better serve elders in my community.

In a ​white paper​ published in August of 2020, The International Council on Active Aging examined the “Next Normal” in senior living. They identified six strategies for senior living communities to consider. These strategies build upon what has been learned through the struggles of 2020 to help the elders in their care to flourish and thrive. Though I don’t work in a senior living community, I found these strategies to be applicable to my practice as a nurse and Aging Life Care Manager™ in direct and indirect ways.

The strategy laid out by the ICAA which jumps out to me is the fourth; “Develop the culture of positive aging, framed by all the dimensions of wellness.” Like many of our ideals in the care industry – this looks really good on paper. But how do we implement this strategy in an intentional way to foster resilience and offer the kind of quality of life that older adults are entitled to as we step out of the crisis and into the “Next Normal” ?

I think it is helpful to start by defining what positive aging might mean. The most often cited source is the book ​Successful Aging​, by scientists John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn (Rowe, J. W., & Kahn, R. L. (1998). ​Successful aging​ . New York, NY: Dell Pub.) They found that successful aging encompassed avoiding disease, maintaining physical and cognitive function, social engagement and performing productive activities. How do we develop a culture of positive aging? In the ideas offered by the ICAA, the word “aspirational” comes up a lot. In my view, this is fitting. Aspiration speaks of striving toward something better, working in pursuit of the ideal, and stretching toward a hopeful future. I think that any of us working with older adults aspire to create an environment which meets Rowe and Kahn’s definition. The following include tactics suggested by the ICAA:

● Reframe beliefs about aging and keep ​wellness ​ (not illness) at the center of care planning. We tend to focus on the negative aspects of aging. We need to change our own thinking and move toward recognizing the positive aspects of aging. Our actions are heavily influenced by our beliefs and thinking, so the work has to start there.
● Emphasize independence without dismissing interdependence. Self efficacy is critical, but relying on each other is not a sign of weakness. It is the sign of a healthy community.
● Focus on capability, not disability.
● Never stop learning. It is critical for professionals to keep challenging their own thinking and “tried and true” ways of doing things though ongoing continuing education on the concept of positive aging.
● Be willing to measure progress toward those aspirations. Everyone knows that a goal you cannot measure is of little benefit.

In my work with elders, I have always spent a lot of time learning and understanding who a person ​was​ . Perhaps they were a homemaker or an astronaut or a teacher or an engineer. And while I still believe in the importance of understanding and appreciating the life’s work of older adults, concepts in positive aging challenge me to prioritize who an elder ​is​ . What contributions can I appreciate right now, today? If as professionals, we can’t answer that question quickly, we have some work to do! If we really are going to foster multidimensional wellness for our elders, then we need to recognize and create a culture of positive aging that takes into account the unique skills, capabilities, knowledge and interests of individual elders in the moment. I hope my colleagues will continue to aspire with me.

Heather Suri, BSN RN CMC
Pathways in Aging, Founder
Aging Life Care Association, Mid-Atlantic Chapter President