By Judi Brownell
Now more than ever, the world is full of uncertainties. Predicting what the future holds for aging adults has never been more challenging. Healthcare professionals are recognizing that addressing issues of mental health and overall wellness is as important as addressing illness and disease. It’s never too early not only to plan for your loved one’s future, but also to take actions that will ensure that they have the most comfortable and positive aging experience possible.
Recent events have made it clear that aging adults, whether receiving care at home or living in a care facility, face a number of challenges. While focus has traditionally been placed on physical changes that result in problems with memory, mobility, hearing, sight, and other related concerns, these are not the only issues that affect the aging experience. As life expectancy increases, loneliness and isolation become an even greater concern as the likelihood of a loved one spending twenty years or more receiving some type of senior care increases. A gradual loss of independence contributes to the feeling of frustration and often depression as aging affects the individual’s ability to take care of the activities of daily living and other personal needs.
While you may not be able to predict the physical changes your loved one will undergo, you can anticipate that there will be times when they feel the psychological effects of losing friends, needing an increasing amount of assistance, or recognizing that their ability to do some of the things they loved has been reduced. They may even begin to doubt their personal value and lose their sense of purpose and well-being. The goal, then, is to think broadly and holistically about your loved one’s needs and then work to prepare them for a life of wellness and a sense of empowerment in the years ahead.
While there’s no magic that can guarantee an older adult won’t occasionally become despondent or depressed, there are a number of things you can do now to ensure that your loved one is as well prepared as possible to thrive in the landscape ahead:
- Familiarize yourself with the array of possible aids and activities that are—or will soon be– available for seniors to make life easier, safer, and more enjoyable. This research will be invaluable as you think realistically about your loved one’s future.
- Reflect on their preferences, capabilities, and personal attributes to create a personalized plan for preparing your loved one for success.
- Take action. The sooner you can identify specific opportunities for improving your loved one’s safety and quality of life, the more effective you can be in introducing them with clarity and patience. Preparing your loved one in advance is key to successful communications and positive outcomes.
The Future of Senior Living: Research, Resources, and Opportunities
One of the goals of CompassCare is to “empower independence.” This phrase articulates the belief that older adults thrive when they feel capable and confident. With the emerging advances in health care and the innovations that are envisioned, seniors will have more opportunities than ever before to live empowered lives. The first step to helping your loved one remain as independent as possible is to explore the options that are available now and that are projected for the future. Of course your loved one’s individual characteristics, abilities, and preference will focus your research. While your search also will be directed by the specific resources and assistance you predict your loved one may require, it’s important not to make assumptions that will limit the scope of your exploration.
Exploring technology is an obvious place to begin. There is a growing list of the ways in which technology can assist seniors and create a more positive and healthy future regardless of specific health or aging issues. Technology can take the stress and worry out of simple activities like medication schedules. Cell phones and other common applications are being developed specifically with seniors’ needs in mind. There are now more ways than ever before that seniors can connect with family, friends, and medical providers through such software as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or Telehealth technologies. Wrist devices can monitor heart rate and indicate if someone is too sedentary. Artificial intelligence has numerous applications that enhance the senior living experience. Virtual reality programs can simulate familiar experiences. Viewing images of their hometown or childhood activities can stimulate older adults to reminisce. Chatbots and robots are becoming increasingly user-friendly–there are even robots that will tell your loved one’s favorite jokes!
Our Changing Landscape Creates Choice & Opportunity
In addition to the technology that can foster your loved one’s feelings of connectedness and sense of independence, she may also have choices about other aspects of her living environment, whether aging in place or in a care facility. The future of senior living is all about providing options. Older adults may not be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity to personalize unless they know what to expect. While numerous studies have found that family members are often quick to make assumptions about their loved one’s preferences about everything from activities to food, having choice is a basic component of empowerment that helps seniors feel in control of their environment. The way choices are presented is key to successfully engaging older adults in preparing for their future.
With total wellness in mind, senior living facilities and home care environments are being designed to provide older adults with places to relax and enjoy nature. Whether creating access to a patio or putting a chair in front of a picture window, senior living professionals in the future will pay much more attention to the environment and how it makes seniors feel.
Your responsibility is to prepare your loved one so that she is as comfortable as possible with a changing landscape that is creating more choice and more opportunities. Without preparation, many older adults are unable or unwilling to explore changes to their schedules or modify familiar routines. You have an important role to play in helping your loved one take advantage of desirable, ability-appropriate resources as they emerge. Older adults are often more resilient and more open to change than their families expect. As you reflect on your loved one’s special qualities, it’s important not to make assumptions about her readiness and reactions.
For instance, you may believe that your loved one wants to avoid technology and that she becomes confused and annoyed by the current focus on texting and social media. Yet, seniors who have been thoughtfully and patiently prepared to take advantage of these technologies have felt more connected to friends and family and less isolated that those who resist learning. One study, for instance, compared families’ reports of their loved one’s attitude toward technology with the older adult’s self-reports. They found, as you might guess, that family members assumed seniors held much more negative attitudes than the self-reports suggested. Other studies have confirmed that increased knowledge of technology significantly increases older adult’s enthusiasm for using it. Clearly, technology fosters a variety of positive outcomes such as safety, independence, connectedness and potentially, well-being.
If seniors are prepare and allowed to move forward at a comfortable pace, they have very positive attitudes about applying new approaches in their daily activities.
Assess Research Results, Reflect on Loved One’s Special Qualities, and Create a Plan
After exploring the various options and opportunities that are available to improve seniors’ safety, comfort, and independence, reflect on your loved one’s specific challenges and needs.
Ask yourself which of the many devices, products, or services have the greatest potential to enhance her experiences and empower her on a daily basis, either at home or in a senior living facility. Some of these possibilities may be things that you have been putting off or perhaps waiting until the right moment to address. Now is the time!
Create a list of no more than five items that you feel might benefit your loved one and that warrant further investigation. While not all options will be available or even feasible at the moment, keep them in mind for the future. Having her own robot may not be out of the question!
Some Possibilities to Explore With Your Loved One
- Get Connected: Try to include one or two products or activities that could be initiated in the near future to improve your loved one’s quality of life and help them to feel more connected and empowered. Perhaps you have a computer, but your loved one has always avoided using it. You may have listed “email for checking in on friends,” or “Zoom with grandchildren,” both applications are already available technology.
- Age Friendly Gadgets: Perhaps they don’t use their cell phone because the keys are too small or they can’t see the screen clearly. This may inspire a search into cell phones made especially for older adults. Even common daily concerns may be resolved by identifying products or activities that could reduce the problem. If your loved one frequently knocks over his/her drink when reaching for it, there are special cups designed to reduce spills so they can be more confident at meals. One cup, already on the market, reduces vibration by over 70 percent for older adults whose hands shake.
- Voice Activation: Even exercise equipment is being designed with the over 70-year-old market in mind. If watching videos gives your loved one pleasure, equipment that is voice activated is now available so there’s no more fumbling to find the remote or remembering how it operates.
The Final Step: Take Action & Develop A Plan
Once you have created a list of products or activities with the potential to enhance your loved one’s daily experiences, and have assessed them in light of her personal preferences and needs, you are ready for the next step. You’ve selected four or five items or activities that “fit” particularly well, and have chosen one or two that have immediate application. The final step is to develop your action plan.
Keep in mind that the purpose of introducing purposeful activities and considering the introduction of new devices is to provide a more enriching environment and help your loved one explore ways to connect and rejuvenate—things that will reduce stress, increase enjoyment, and further empower her independence.
Especially when individuals are confined to small spaces, finding ways to create meaning and find joy on a daily basis becomes particularly important. If older adults aren’t inspired they often fall into patterns that, ultimately, increase the chances of becoming depressed and lonely.
The keys to successfully introducing a new activity or product to an older adult, as you well know, include simplicity, repetition, patience, and kindness.
- Keep the Ideas Simple: Think about your approach in advance so that your message can be simple and connect to ideas and outcomes that are important to your loved one. Realize that introducing any new idea or activity will likely require multiple conversations. Move forward slowly! Begin by just introducing the idea; make sure your loved one doesn’t feel that she is being pressured to do something.
Example: If, for instance, you found an email program designed specifically for use by older adults—and you are thinking that you could purchase a keyboard designed for those who require larger letters—you might begin by saying things like, “Marcy misses you a lot. She emails me every week asking about how you’re doing.” That’s all for the first conversation. A few days later you might say something like, “I just read that more and more people your age are using email to keep in touch with their families. I know your friend Martha really enjoys emailing her grandson.” Move the idea forward slowly, and find ways to build your conversation on your loved one’s interests. Keep the ideas simple and clear.
- Have Patience: If your loved one doesn’t understand what you mean and becomes agitated, or doesn’t want to talk, be patient. Wait for a time when she is likely to be most receptive. Perhaps show her a picture, or ask another family member for their thoughts on how best to introduce an idea. You may feel like your loved one is deliberately blocking your message, but the problem may be that she becomes confused and frustrated when ideas are unfamiliar. Many older adults are simply fearful of change.
Example: Perhaps you are thinking that a virtual reality program would enable your loved one to remember her childhood and relive positive experiences. Her grandson agreed that this technology would have a huge positive impact, and so began to explain it to her. He used terms like “virtual reality” and other phrases that were totally unfamiliar to her. Instead of asking questions, she immediately withdrew and didn’t want to talk about it. When he brought up the subject again, she was abrupt and annoyed, telling him that she was “too old for all those useless gadgets.” Conversations about virtual reality applications might have gone much better had he begun by simply talking about her life growing up in Montana and the things she enjoyed doing. He could have moved on to looking at pictures with her and then explained that now there were ways to make her feel like she was right back on her father’s ranch.
- Be Kind: Make sure, regardless of how your loved one reacts, that you are generous and kind in your response. You’ve spent a lot of time researching and reflecting, trying to find ideas that will prove helpful and empowering. When she doesn’t listen or consider your suggestions it’s easy to become frustrated. Keep your expression positive, your voice calm and slow, and take a deep breath!
The world is changing, and more opportunities to improve older adults’ quality of life and overall wellness are becoming more readily available. Of course, not all efforts to introduce new ideas and applications will be equally successful. But with understanding and compassion you can help your loved one anticipate transitions and better prepare her for what she might expect in the years ahead. One thing we know for certain is that when older adults feel independent and empowered, they become more confident and engaged. Change is inevitable. Much progress is being made in creating and providing lifestyle and wellness developments specifically for older adults. Whether your loved one is living at home or in a senior care facility, your efforts to introduce them to new possibilities and experiences can pave the way for a healthier, happier, more meaningful life.
Judi is Compass Care’s Director of Hospitality and Client Care and a Professor of Organizational Communication in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University Johnson College of Business. She was previously president of the International Listening Association and developed training programs for hospital staff in customer service.