Most of us who work in the senior living industry are driven by our desire to help others, in particular to enrich the lives of older adults. With that value in mind, shouldn’t our Life Plan Communities be a bastion of validation and empowerment for the residents within our communities. I suggest that if we take a good hard look at our communities, we might find that not to be the case.
AGEISM WITHIN OUR WALLS
Psychologist Becca Levy, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University, states, "Age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age--long before they are even relevant to people….. even by the age of four, children are familiar with age stereotypes, which are reinforced over their lifetimes” (www.apa.org). Members of our staff have been affected and internalized these stereotypes for decades. With staff that lifelong exposure to ageism, members on our staff may exhibit negative prejudices about the people who live our communities.
Ageism can be expressed both intrinsically and extrinsically so some cases are easier to discern than others. Let’s look at a few examples.
Restriction of leadership opportunities or opportunity for authentic purpose.
When leaders have an organizational decision to make, I am guessing that they seek the opinions of other executive management staff, managers, and other highly regarded staff members. But do they ever seek out the opinions of residents? With their decades of experience in running companies or participating in high level management, does management seek or value the opinions of residents? Often these decisions impact, directly or indirectly, the lives of our residents. Can the residents become more active participants in the community in which they live?
When I finally retire, I do NOT want to get up early in the morning for breakfast. Finally, I would prefer to follow my internal clock that runs a little later in the day so that my meals are not consumed at the typical breakfast, lunch and dinner hours. An open dining plan would give me control over my day, thus making me feel like I have mastery over my day-to-day schedule. Such changes in policy and procedure increase resident satisfaction and fulfill the need for empowerment in their lives.
Limitation of self determination
During my experience as a consultant, I once witnessed a community whose management decided that the residents should eat healthier foods. Therefore, the community eliminated all fatty foods from the menu. For residents who grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in southern states, where this community was located, this was an upsetting decision. As grown adults, our residents should have the prerogative to eat as they like, whether it is the healthiest choice for them or not. In another case one community decided not to include a hot tub in their expansion due to the risk of hot tubs and high blood pressure. Decisions should not be made from a paternalistic position, treating residents like they are children who cannot make mature decisions for themselves.
EFFECTS OF NEGATIVE AGE-RELATED BIASES
With the overarching mission of enriching the lives of our residents, we should give concentrated attention to ageism within our communities. Liz Seegert, a journalist for Association of Health Care Journalists suggests “Ageism has real mental and physical health consequences, including a decreased will to live, less desire to live a healthy lifestyle, an impaired recovery from illness, increased stress and a shortened life span” (healthjournalism.org/blog). The opposite is true for a positive perception of aging. During her longitudinal studies of over 650 older adults, Becca Levy, associate professor of psychology at Yale, discovered that those who had positive rather than negative perceptions about their aging lived on average 7.5 extra years (apa.org).
NEXT STEPS TO REDUCE AGEISM IN OUR COMMUNTIES
As with most problems, the first step in solving or improving upon a problem is to recognize that it exists.
- Therefore, step one is to take a hard look at your policies and the environment within your community.
- Make policy changes when necessary.
- Train your staff. Yes, I am suggesting a culture change, but one that promises tremendous rewards for your residents.
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