National Conference on Aging: Let's ReThink Aging April 2007
I've just returned from a week in Chicago at the National Conference on Aging. The event is hosted by the American Society on Aging and National Council on Aging (of which we are a member). Over 4000 people attended over 1100 workshops on various issues of aging. The plenary address by Anna Deavere Smith was awesome. Without a doubt, a continuous theme of the conference was that boomers will change the experience of aging as they have changed every stage to this point. I attended the conference to be informed of the "hot issues" in the field so that PSRC can stay on the leading edge and be prepared to meet the emerging needs of this community. I specifically wanted to learn about best practices in integrated case management, program evaluation, successful collaborations, and civic engagement of "boomers."
In the Senior Center sessions, we agreed that older seniors are more comfortable with the term "senior" than younger people, but it really comes down to what you do rather than what you call your center. It was exciting to hear that senior centers are becoming the center of senior services, due in part to efforts to reshape ourselves to be responsive to new expectations. It is now possible to have three generations of older adults attending senior centers: The GI generation (1901-1924), the Silent Generation (1925-1945), and the Boomers 1946-1964)! This certainly presents programming challenges. Research shows that our customers want to be connected to others, to have choices, and to stay active. You are powerful, assertive consumers, who are increasingly tech savvy. You have moved us from a focus on care to a focus on wellness, and from asking "why" to "why not?" This stage of life is now seen as a transition not a termination, a stage to look forward to rather than dread. There was also considerable discuss on of the wide variations in experience of relationships between senior centers and area agencies on aging.
I went to several programs on coalition building as we work to build stronger collaborations to provide better services to this community. It reinforced the awareness that it takes communication and commitment to build trust and overcome obstacles, and that successful coalitions are built on careful planning. There was a lot of discussion of moving from "silos of care", where each type of service interacts with the recipient independently, to collaboration and integrated care. While I did not find a proven "best practice" model, I got leads on other programs to investigate.
In the caregiving track, there was much discussion of a recent study on caregiver health "Caregivers in Decline" conducted by Evercare. The health, emotional and financial consequences to caregivers are immense. It highlights the need for more services for family caregivers, whose numbers are expected to grow in coming years, especially with care shifting from institutional settings to home care. I attended a full-day program on Caregiver Coalitions, which illustrated how working together can increase both awareness and resources for caregivers in a community.
David Eisner gave a powerful talk on civic engagement of boomers, noting that they are volunteering at a higher rate than the previous generation did at this age. Agencies must create opportunities that are sufficiently challenging and engaging to retain this resource. Contrary to expectation, working women with children are the largest volunteer cohort because they are more community-connected.
At the present time, the National Council on the Aging has a small number of evidence-based programs that have been replicated: Enhance Fitness and Enhance Wellness, Matter of Balance, Chronic Disease Self- Management and Preventing Medication Errors. There are programs in development on Brain Health, Civic Engagement, and Depression. Clearly these are all narrowly defined health-related programs, where funding for research can be found through health industry partners and outcomes are concrete.
"Evidence-based" or research-based practice is beginning to enter senior centers, although most agencies are too small to support the technology and research needs. It is harder to measure the impact on quality of life and multi-dimensional programs.
One of the most exciting sessions I attended was on housing. After all the sessions on evidence-based practice, I enjoyed hearing people talk from their passions about the communities they have created. There was a lot of talk about co-housing communities, virtual communities and other innovative concepts. Community Without Walls got good PR as one example.
Clearly we face many challenges in the years ahead. We know that the aging population will grow, especially the oldest and frailest cohort. At the same time, there will be fewer young caregivers and funding will be stretched even further, widening the gap between those who have resources and options and those who do not. Technology will help create possibilities we can only wish for now. The looming health care crisis will have to be addressed. Boomers will change how we view aging, and how we navigate the journey. I was pleased that there were very few issues that were new to me, and that have not been raised in our strategic planning discussions. I hope that the emphasis on evidencebased practice will not snuff out innovation and creative approaches to challenging problems. It is an exciting time to be in the field.
Susan W. Hoskins LCSW
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