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Seniorgram: Sending a Message on Senior Issues

Barbara Bodzin, LifePath Executive DirectorBarbara Bodzin, Executive Director

The Power of Language and the Negative Effects of “Elderspeak”

Talking down to older adults is not only disrespectful, it can be detrimental.

“Elderspeak” occurs when an older adult is spoken to as if they are a child or a pet with limited understanding. This phenomenon is not uncommon in interactions with health care workers, service personnel, neighbors, or even family members. In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Anna I. Corwin, an anthropologist and professor at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, noted that elderspeak “sounds like baby talk or simplified speech” and is, in fact, a symptom of how older adults are often perceived.

According to Corwin, elderspeak includes characteristics including “a slower speech rate; exaggerated intonation; elevated pitch — raising your voice as if everything is a question; elevated volume; simplified vocabulary and reduced grammatical complexity; diminutives, like calling people ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’; pronoun substitution like using the collective pronoun ‘we’; and lots of repetition.”

“Speaking to an elder should be no different than speaking to any other adult.”

“Americans tend to view and treat older adults as no longer productive in society. And that’s how we define personhood, as an adult who is a productive member of society,” Corwin said. Corwin’s insights were the result of a study of the linguistic communication that contributes to successful aging which included spending seven months in a Catholic convent infirmary where the nuns, noted for more successful aging than secular peers, did not engage in elderspeak. The caregivers instead used conversational tones, made jokes, told narratives, and essentially treated the care recipient as a “meaningful [person] whether they could understand them or not.”

According to Becca Levy, a researcher on a study on the effects of elderspeak at Yale University, the practice “sends a message that the (elder) is incompetent and begins a negative downward spiral for older adults who react with decreased self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.” Elderspeak has also been shown to increase the likelihood of challenging behaviors in those with dementia and is correlated with poorer health outcomes is general.

In its guide "Communicating With Older Adults," the Gerontological Society of America says you don't need to change your vocabulary to use simplified words. As a general rule, older adults maintain their existing vocabulary or continue to improve it. They have no greater problem understanding complicated words than do members of other age groups.

The solution is straightforward: speaking to an elder should be no different than speaking to any other adult. Word choices matter. Instead of ‘honey’ or ‘dear’, elders want to be addressed with a title and their last name: “Ms. Smith” or, with permission, by their first name. Often times people are unaware of behaviors and style of communication; taking time to reflect on speech will enhance and foster respectful and empowering relationships.

Barbara Bodzin, LifePath Executive DirectorBarbara Bodzin, Executive Director

Celebrating women and aging

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This day has been celebrated for over a century and also marks a call to action for promoting gender equality.  

It is a time of reflection, and there is much to celebrate, in particular for older women. There are more women over 50 in this country today than at any other point in history, according to data from the United States Census Bureau. Furthermore, women are healthier, are working longer and have more income than previous generations.

This growth in the over-50 population is creating modest but real progress in the visibility and stature of older women. Historically, older women have struggled to remain relevant and feel heard and have had to combat feelings of invisibility. Women over 50 bring a unique set a skills, wisdom and informational context. Older women are embracing opportunities, desire to stay in the workplace, and aim to find their way into more leadership roles.  

Nearly a third of women aged 65 to 69 are now working, up from 15 percent in the late 1980s, according to recent analyses by the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. Some 18 percent of women aged 70 to 74 work, up from eight percent.  Interestingly, working longer is more common among women with higher education and savings, according to Jessica Bennett, author of “I am an Older Woman. Hear Me Roar.”

Older women are finding fulfillment in work and in all aspects of their lives.  “Contrary to the cultural scripts that say women are old and useless and in the way — diminished versions of their former selves — in reality older women are the happiest demographic in the country,” writer Mary Pipher says. In her article, “Want To Be Happy? Live Like A Woman Over 50,” she cites research from the University of California, San Diego, along with census data from the United Kingdom, suggesting not only that people become happier as they age but that “the happiest people are women aged 65-79.”

There are many theories about why women fare better than men. One is simply that women tend to be healthier and more active. Women are more likely to have close relationships with family and friends and know how to engage in intimate conversations about deeper emotions with others. 

Mary Pipher goes on to say, “Part of what allows us to deeply appreciate our lives and savor our time is our own past despair. In fact, it has great value as a springboard for growth. There is an ancient and almost universal cycle that involves trauma, despair, struggle, adaptation, and resolution. This is a deepening cycle that prepares us for whatever is to come next. It opens our hearts to others and helps us feel grateful for every small pleasure.”  

This is an exciting time in our history with the emerging strength and presence of older women in roles of prominence. Women are influencing our courts, our legislation, our media, our workplaces and our homes like never before. If you are a women over 50, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on and acknowledge your own accomplishments and the goals you still want to achieve. And, everyone, please join me in taking a moment to think about an older woman who has had influence in your life, and celebrate her for how she enriched your life and the lives of others.

Barbara Bodzin, LifePath Executive DirectorBarbara Bodzin, Executive Director

Questioning our priorities - the crisis in home care

Nationwide, there are approximately 3 million home care workers who provide the much-needed care to enable elders and persons with disabilities to remain in their homes. These vital services are typically delivered by highly empathic workers who offer support, companionship and assistance with tasks such as bathing, dressing, housework and shopping. As the aging population continues to grow, the ever-increasing demand for direct service workers is creating a looming worker shortage, leaving many positions unfilled.

Intrinsic to the direct service worker shortage are low wages, limited opportunities for advancement, lack of respect, physically taxing work, inconsistent hours and meager or non-existent benefits packages. Stagnant wages have left 20% of all home care workers living below the poverty level.

Approximately one quarter of these direct service workers are immigrants. Changes in immigration policy and restrictions under consideration by the White House are further fueling the critical shortage of home care staff. The impact to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients who may be forced to leave the United States, travel bans, deportations and termination of temporary protected status of workers from select countries have negatively impacted an already strained industry.

Feb 2019 SG Questioning our Priorities The Crisis in Home Care photoMany of the people who are home care workers are immigrants, and many more people are needed to address the worker shortage in this vital and growing industry.

The loss of valuable home care workers is occurring as:

  • Legal residents of the United States are moving back to their country of origin when relatives are deported
  • Undocumented immigrants, who are a significant part of the “gray market” where clients pay privately and out-of-pocket through an unregulated network of direct service workers are exiting the workforce.
  • Home health training programs for Latino immigrants are seeing reductions in enrollments.
  • Whole communities are feeling targeted with workers oftentimes wanting to limit their activities outside of the home.
  • These dynamics are dissuading program graduates from entering the workforce due to immigration-related anxieties.

“We have a caregiver shortage, and implementing policies like immigration reform is just going to exacerbate that shortage even more,” Carelinx CEO Sherwin Sheik said at a Home Health Care News summit. “We have to recognize who is taking care of our seniors and embrace them, rather than close the door.”

As the number of elders increases relative to the young, so will the growing shortage of workers to provide the care. Our social obligation needs to shift to ensure the security of elders and persons with disabilities through the availability and provision of quality care. Older immigrants should have the option to receive assistance from those who speak their native language. Welcoming immigrants helps grow the home care workforce and enhances the industry with respectful caring attitudes and cultural competencies possessed by workers of diverse ethnic origins.

Only through the development of this workforce and elevation of the status of home care workers will we be able to properly attend to the needs of this population that is expected to soar in the years ahead.

Barbara Bodzin, LifePath Executive DirectorBarbara Bodzin, Executive Director

Thriving in place with smart technology

The United States is a graying nation. With it has come a new conversation about aging, namely, the difference between simply getting older versus thriving as you age.

Important work related to the research and development of technologies to help elders thrive in place is taking place worldwide. Falls are a leading cause of injury-related death among older adults and a major reason why many elders become unable to live independently. In response, the University of Maine’s Center on Aging is working to develop clothing that would provide hip protection to help prevent a fracture upon a fall. The University is also working to develop a device to be mounted on an individual’s glasses to help detect edges, such as stairs, curbs, or benches, which could create falling hazards.

Aging in place with smart technology in the home

“Smart” technology can enhance the livability of one’s home too. For example, motion-sensor lighting is not only convenient, but can prevent falls when walking into a room. If you forget to lock the door, your home can remind you and even take care of it for you. With one touch or voice control, you can control just about everything in the home. As you age, your connected smart home can help you continue to live independently, safely, and comfortably.

Health-monitoring and tracking smart devices

Devices that monitor and track your health are becoming more popular among all age populations. Telemedicine and Telehealth capabilities and communications are particularly valuable in rural communities and enable long-distance patient and clinician contact and care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, and monitoring. Health data can be collected through wearable technologies like smartwatches and relayed to your care providers. Activity sensors through the house monitor loved ones who are living unassisted at home. These sensors can be placed in discreet locations: doors, cabinets, windows, beds, etc., to track movement around the house and report back to a caregiver or a loved one. 

“Smart” pill counters alert and properly dispense medications for you. Stovetop technologies will turn the stove off if left unattended for a predetermined amount of time. “Smart” doors that don't require fumbling with a handle – and in some cases, don't swing out, but slide side to side – can assist elders who struggle to get around. “Smart” doorbells help ensure one’s safety at home by allowing a homeowner to see, hear, and speak to someone at their door without having to open it.

Smart technology for inviduals with dementia

Of note is the positive effect technology is having on improving the quality of life and easing safety concerns for individuals with dementia. Assistive technology is also impactful in lifting some of the responsibilities and anxieties experienced by caregivers.

Sept 2017 World Alzheimers Day photo webThe Alzheimer's Music Project provides iPods with custom playlists to individuals with dementia. You can donate your gently-used iPod Shuffle or iPod Touch by mailing it to: Alzheimer's Music Project, Inc., 138 Harkness Rd., Pelham, MA 01002. Visit The Alzheimer's Music Project website for more information. Photo by Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash.com.Recorded reminder messages can prompt a person not to open the door or to go back to bed. Those who may confuse day and night can experience altered sleep patterns, which may be disruptive to the household. Clocks designed specifically for those with dementia can hold set routines. GPS tracking and location devices can significantly increase the safety of individuals who may wander. These systems, which can be attached to the person or may be built into clothing or shoes, will alert a caregiver if their loved one has left the home. These tracking devices can also provide emergency personnel with the location of an individual to ensure a timely and safe recovery. For those who cannot remember or identify phone numbers, picture phones with clear buttons where photos can be placed enable the person to simply press the button to quickly call their loved one or first responders.

Music technology through the use of ipods or mp3 players can have a marked impact on quality of life. According to Peter Acker, director of The Alzheimer's Music Project, “Research has shown that familiar and beloved music helps to calm chaotic brain activity in people with Alzheimer’s and they’re more able to focus on the present moment and regain a sense of his/her connection to others. We work with families and caregivers in Massachusetts to create music playlists that are ‘tailored’ for each person – enabling those struggling with cognitive challenges to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories.”

While no cure exists yet for Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias, emerging technologies can alleviate anxieties, help establish routines, and offer vehicles for sustaining joyful relationships as well as enable dignity and independence. These investments, and others like them, can transform the aging in place experience. In this season of giving, consider introducing some of these remarkable technologies to a loved one aging in their home. For more information, contact us.

Additional “Seniorgram” articles can be found here.

Barbara Bodzin, LifePath Executive DirectorBarbara Bodzin, Executive Director

Generosity is our heritage and a key to our wellbeing

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” ― Henry James 

Generosity comes in many forms, from charitable donations to formal volunteering to helping a stranger to caring for a spouse or a child. What these and other examples have in common is that they involve “giving good things to others freely and abundantly,” the definition of generosity according to the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Project.

Generosity has its roots not just in our individual development but also in our very biology and evolutionary history; hosts of studies have uncovered evidence that humans are biologically wired for generosity. Many studies point to the positive consequences of generosity for the giver. Giving social support — time, effort, or goods — is associated with better overall health in older adults, and volunteering is associated with delayed mortality.

Other studies have shown a link between generosity and happiness. And even small acts of kindness, like picking up something someone else has dropped, make people feel happy. Generosity is also associated with benefits in the workplace, such as reducing the likelihood of job burnout, and in relationships, where it is associated with more contentment and longer-lasting romantic relationships.

Kindness can be as simple as a smile, a thank-you, or a word of encouragement. It's a way of connecting, even if only for a brief moment, with those we pass in our daily lives. It doesn't have to cost anything or take much time - what's important is that it's an act of genuine care and thoughtfulness for another person.

As the year winds down and the holiday season rolls in, create a kind moment for someone, anyone, even yourself, through a purposeful act of kindness.

A generous spirit is not about giving when it’s easy…. It’s about tapping into your humanity and viewing the world and others before you through your human lens – the one that sees us all as the same.