Rose, 43 yrs

Oct 23rd 2022

“When I moved to Canada, I was given the opportunity to work as a contract instructor. The only course they had available however, was the 'psychology of aging'. I never focused on older adults in my prior teachings, but I was up for a challenge. I was 28 when I started teaching a course about the later stage of life, clearly one that I haven’t experienced yet, but I had parents and grandparents who were aging. When I first walked into the class, the students could not see the connection between who I was and what I was teaching, and it was a challenge convincing myself and them that I could do this. With that being said, I taught that course successfully for 15 years because I worked hard to make the course work well for me and my students. I did it in a non-traditional way and I went through countless textbooks, trying to find one that focused on ethnically diverse older adults in our society. My students were psychology majors, social workers, and those who were just curious about the aging process. I even had some older adults who were quite interested in the course, who could have taught me about aging.

I reached a point in my career where although I was grateful to be an academic, I realized I wanted to make a larger impact on older adults. When I asked my students, ‘how many of you are here because you want to work with older adults?’, I didn’t receive much enthusiasm. Maybe 3 or 4 students wanted to, but the majority didn’t. They wanted the information they learned to pass onto a family member, but that was it. I thought, that’s a bit odd. Statistics have been telling us for years that the number of older adults in our society is increasing, so we need support, resources, and jobs to provide for them. Regardless of whether you want to work with older adults or not, the reality is that you will have to interact with an older adult at some point in your life. I know that my teaching resonated with a lot of students, who continued to volunteer in senior homes and long-term care facilities, but I really felt that there was a way to use this knowledge and energy to have a bigger impact on older adults, and for me, leaving academia was the right way to do it.

I used to work as a resident experience manager at a new older adult community in Calgary. I strived to use my academic experience to understand how we can help older adults who want to continue living a life that’s fulfilling, has purpose, and is of continuous quality. I knew something personal about every resident that moved in because I took the time to have meaningful conversations with them. I wanted them to know that their life experiences and journeys are of value, even if they didn’t think so.

When it comes to long-term care or nursing homes, I think we immediately think of an institutionalized setting, or a final drop off-spot for your parents or grandparents who are no longer independent and cannot be looked after by their loved ones. But my vision does not look like that. My vision is that it’s a community where older adults thrive and still feel like productive members of society. That’s what I hope to create here; we’re not locking them up and doing everything for them because they don’t want that. But most long-term care facilities have an expectation that older adults can function at a certain level. We know from research, that their level of abilities and functionalities will start to match the level of expectation of that environment, so its important we match their level instead of the other way around.

The reality is, cognitively and physically we’re going to slow down and socially, our connections are going to shrink. That’s a universal experience, so why does it come as a surprise to us? We must be vigilant, educated, and mindful of the fact that these things will happen, but we can adapt. We have this stereotype that older adults are all grumpy and miserable and not very pleasant to be around with, but have you ever met an older adult who was cheerful, loving, and full of life? What’s different about them? First, their personality has an impact on how they age but also the fact that they’ve come to realize, ‘well yeah, my knees and back are hurting more, but I still have a love for life’. That’s what I want to see. Living your best life regardless of how old you are but finding ways to adapt to the changes occurring. The ‘selection, optimization, and compensation’ (SOC) model resonates well with this. Let’s say that our vision declines as we grow older. So how do we compensate for this? We get glasses. But we still want to optimize our love for reading and literature, so we become selective with what we read. It’s important we encourage older adults to adapt and adjust instead of assuming their level of ability and stripping away the things that bring them joy.

How do we define ‘positive aging’? Well, what does ‘positive’ mean to you? It means growth and enhancement. And ‘aging’ is associated with growing older. So, what is it that you continue to add to your life as you grow older? If you want to add anything, that is. It’s so important to honour and respect what older adults want to do. We shouldn’t assume and expect all of them to add to their lives. I don’t go to my residents and say, ‘You have to do these activities or exercises’. Instead, I say, ‘Is there anything here you like to do?. If not, that’s fine, but at least you know it’s there if you need it.' They are still aging on their own terms. The same goes for ‘successful aging’. What is ‘successful’ to you is different from what is ‘successful’ to me. I could have been using a wheelchair since I was a young child, but to you, successful aging is being able to walk independently. So, you and I are going to age differently. There were some resident who said, ‘I just came here to do nothing. I don’t want to be busy.’ To them, that is successful aging.”

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