By Peter Lichtenberg, Director, Institute of Gerontology
Financial entitlement is one domain of financial exploitation. In 2010, Conrad and colleagues defined financial entitlement as: “a belief held primarily by adult children that they can take their older parent(s)’ money to spend on themselves without permission. Although some adult children argue that the money is their inheritance and thus already earmarked for them, using an older person’s money without permission is exploitation.”
In my experience there is a chilling effect of financial entitlement. When older adults are asked if they discuss their financial arrangements or plans with their adult children, the majority tell me “no, if I raise the issue of money, my children may want it.” Money thus becomes a difficult conversation for older adults and their adult children to have and yet, now more than ever, older adults and their adult children need to discuss finances and make plans for safeguarding the older adult’s money. Indeed, the conversation should often focus on the plans older adults make with their financial services industry professional.
Despite research showing that financial exploitation (including thefts and scams, abuse of trust, and coercion) of older adults has been increasing dramatically – a 22% increase over four years – very few professionals believe they should involve themselves in the older adults’ financial affairs. Even when they suspect exploitation is occurring.
We are urging banks, financial planners, CPAs, and attorneys, among others, to begin a proactive planning process with all of their older clients in order that the proper support from family members and/or professionals can be activated when needed. Financial services industry personnel are increasingly being trained to recognize cognitive impairment or psychological vulnerability, but those skills must be paired with a good planning process before a crisis exists so that the older adult can choose who to involve should their financial capacity deteriorate. This is why we created and tested a new tool to help industry professionals screen for financial decision making abilities and/or deficits.
Our pre-doctoral trainees spend anywhere from one to seven years in our program mentored by our faculty focused on anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology, or nursing. The goal of our training program is to prepare students for professional careers in research, with an expertise in aging and health. We’re sad when they leave but proud to learn about their accomplishments! Here are our most recent updates:
Dr. Pam May completed her dissertation over the summer. She was kind enough to send us a photo from her new office at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha where she will complete a two-year Post-Doc in clinical neuropsychology.
Dr. Sheria Robinson completed her PhD over the summer as well! She’s off to the University of Michigan in the School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation where she’ll work on post-doctoral research.
We wish our trainees continued success in their research, careers, and all endeavors!
Twice a year we feature an “IOGer” to better acquaint outsiders with the innder workings of the IOG. Meet Ray (pictured middle top), a research assistant, that works with IOG faculty member, Jessica Damoiseaux, Ph.D. (pictured lower left), in her lab.
Tell us about your role at the IOG and about yourself.
This July I will have worked at the Institute of Gerontology for two years. My job responsibilities have evolved to become a mixture of data collection and analysis along with Linux tech support. I guess I have found that the tasks at work that bring me the most joy are the ones where I have to write a script for some data analysis task. Interests outside of work include writing music, attending live music events, swimming, reading, and seeing friends and family.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ann Arbor two doors down from my neighborhood pool. During my childhood summers I probably spent eight hours a day in/at the pool. I’ve been swimming since I was five and still do to this day because of my early proximity to a large body of water.
Where did you go to school?
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
What did you study?
My initial interest in neuroscience stemmed from books that I had read on lucid dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D. and Partricia Garfield, Ph.D. This early interest in sleep and dreams led me on my path to study neuroscience and psychology. Though my initial interests in dreams may have faded, my interest in the brain as a whole has not.
How did you end up in aging?
Earlier I mentioned that my interests in sleep waned during my undergraduate studies; however, an interest in memory and cognition in general grew instead. I was drawn to Dr. Damoiseaux’s lab at the IOG because her goal of finding early biomarkers of dementia before symptomology is outwardly present, via various magnetic resonance imaging techniques, fits my general interest in making contributions to the science of human memory.
How do you hope to have a positive impact on aging?
My personal career goals have always been to make contributions to science; I have always seen myself as a scientist. I just hope that the work I help out with positively impacts humanity so that steps can be taken to keep memory intact throughout the aging process.
Thanks for letting us learn more about you and the work you do Ray!
To learn more about Connect Lab visit http://connectlab.wayne.edu/
In my last blog post, I introduced the notion that innovation in aging services is more about collaboration and cooperation than about new technology. One program I discussed is Experience Corps, in which seniors volunteer to tutor children in local schools. This program brings many benefits to schools, students, and older adult volunteers. Here’s a similar program that works in the opposite direction: The TECH program developed by the Central Oregon Council on Aging. TECH stands for Teen Elder Computer Help. It’s an intergenerational training class that uses teenage volunteers to teach seniors how to use digital cameras, smartphones, e-mail, Skype, and social media such as Facebook. The seniors and teens all love it. The older people feel more connected to modern technology and popular culture while being able to stay in touch with their far-flung family members and friends. The teens come to better understand their elders and cultivate a sense of pride in volunteering and helping others. It’s another win-win.
Right here in Michigan, in places like Kalamazoo and Ferndale, Royal Oak and Ypsilanti, people are developing time banks. Time banks allow people to barter services, and they are a great vehicle for intergenerational exchange and mutual assistance. Using time banks, older adults can trade services they are able to provide for services they are unable to do for themselves. They can offer to provide after-school childcare in exchange for help with lawn mowing. They can bake a batch of cookies for their neighbor, who will clean out their gutters or rake their leaves in return. They can repair torn clothing or sew a popped button for the person who will take them grocery shopping. The possibilities are huge, the cost in dollars is small, and the potential for intergenerational learning and empathy and a stronger community is real.
One thing that these intergenerational programs have in common is that they capitalize on the understanding that while older adults often need our help and support, they also bring a lot to the table: A lifetime of experience and wisdom, a grounding in the community, a good amount of free time, and sometimes significant financial and physical resources. Our older population is growing, and plenty of its members will need help in maintaining their health and independence, but overall it is the healthiest, best educated, and most socially engaged older population we’ve ever had. My research shows that seniors are not only participating in the work force at higher rates than they have in many decades, but even those who are retired import billions of dollars into Michigan’s economy in the form of Social Security and pension benefits each year. This does not include their Medicare benefits, which largely fuel our healthcare system, currently the strongest economic sector in our state. Yes, let’s serve seniors, but let’s also give those who are able plenty of opportunity to serve others.
Finally, let’s remember that things change, and agencies that serve seniors in their communities need to keep up with the changes. They cannot continue business as usual and expect to survive. They need to find new ways to provide services and enhance the quality of life of our older adult population, all while reducing costs. New services that are well designed and competently delivered to serve unserved needs can ultimately reduce costs in the long run. A good example is the care transitions program of The Senior Alliance, Area Agency on Aging 1-C, another organization I work with in Southeast Michigan. The Senior Alliance developed a care transitions coaching program that is now funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This program has helped to significantly lower Medicare costs arising from readmission and rehospitalization among high risk, frail elderly folks who are discharged from the hospital. The transition coach meets with each client in the hospital before they are discharged to help them assemble and review their personal medical record. They teach them and encourage them to properly manage their medications, to adhere to dietary guidelines prescribed by their doctors, and to follow up and advocate for themselves with their primary care physicians after they are discharged. They meet with them in their homes after discharge to review meds and offer information and support, and make sure they take proper steps to care for chronic conditions and get regular medical care. It costs several hundred dollars to coach each patient, which seems pretty expensive until you consider that by reducing readmission by nearly 30%, which this program does, each dollar spent reduces health care expenditures by many more dollars, not to mention reducing the human costs of unnecessary hospitalization. Now that hospitals are being penalized by Medicare for preventable readmissions, they have become eager partners in this enterprise.
But the larger point is that those who serve the older population must keep their ear to the ground. They must maintain a keen awareness of the broader environment in which seniors live. And they must be ready to adjust their programs and services to better fit those changing conditions. Program evaluation, needs assessment, and outcomes research are key to accomplishing these goals. In the aging services field, they have done a great job of measuring outputs—units of service delivered, clients served—but they have done a poor job of measuring outcomes and the end results of the services they have delivered. My colleagues at the Senior Regional Collaborative and I have developed a measurement tool called the Quality Aging Matrix which we hope will help us to gauge the effects of our services on the quality of life of older clients. It measures the conditions seniors face along several dimensions such as mental and physical health, housing, nutrition, and social engagement, each ranging from crisis, to stability, to thriving. It uses repeated measures taken at intake and each review by a caseworker to show the degree of movement from crisis to a thriving condition in order to evaluate the effectiveness of our programs. It’s still in its very early pilot stages, but we hope it will help service providers to better assess their services and convince funders that their programs are effective and that precious dollars are being well spent.
To those in the aging network, the message is this: Don’t be afraid to be creative, try new things, reach out, and work together. Older adults are our parents and grandparents, those we love, those upon whose legacy we have built our lives. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and we carry an obligation to offer a hand when they need help. And if we haven’t yet done so and we are lucky and take care of ourselves, some day sooner than many of us would like to admit, we will join their ranks. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an array of efficient and effective services to depend upon when we do?
To learn more about Dr. Tom Jankowski and his work visit http://www.iog.wayne.edu/profile/thomas.jankowski/
This essay was adapted from the keynote address by Thomas B. Jankowski, PhD, at the Midland County Council on Aging Annual Meeting and Senior Services 50th Anniversary Dinner, November 12, 2013.
As I was in the final stages of collecting the data for my dissertation, a relative at a family event asked me what I was researching. After I responded, “Older people in Detroit neighborhoods,” she looked at me and asked, “Is that as bleak as it sounds?” In her mind I was examining the intersection of two miserable topics, both focused on despair, decline, and isolation. She was surprised when I assured her, that at least for my study participants, it was not as bleak as she imagined. “What could make aging in Detroit good?” she asked me. She was surprised when I explained that their social networks, friendships, and active participation with community service organizations made Detroit a good place to be an older person.
Gerontology related research in the contemporary United States is focused on aging well and threats to aging well, with social isolation as a critical component of aging experiences deemed unsatisfactory. The essential tenet that guides this research is the idea of “successful aging” first put forth by Rowe and Kahn (1987). Successful aging differs from “usual” or expected ideas about aging that focus on decline and loss of function. This effort to rebrand the aging experience as something to be controlled through individual agency has been heavily critiqued, most recently by Rubinstein and de Medeiros (2015) who link the concept of “successful aging” to the neoliberal political milieu under which it was conceived. They consider the potentially harmful impacts of this association which suggest that society is not responsible for offering assistance to those who “unsuccessfully” age as they have done so through their own fault.
As a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and former Institute of Gerontology Pre-Doctoral trainee, I am in interested in exploring ideas about “successful aging” in spaces widely deemed “unsuccessful” like the city of Detroit. Conversations about “successful aging” and the older person often mirror rhetoric and media representations of “good cities” (Zukin 2009) where individuals are responsible for their own individual health and maintenance. Under the gaze of a neoliberal ideology society is not responsible for bankrupt, declining cities who fail to attract businesses, residents, or visitors. Through the same gaze of neoliberal “successful aging,” society is not responsible for older individuals who fail to maintain their own finances, physical health, or personal happiness.
For the past two years I have been engaged in conducting ethnographic research with older Detroit residents about their experiences of aging in the city. Many older Detroit residents expressed that although there were challenges to aging in Detroit, it was still a good place to grow old and they would not be happy leaving for suburban or retirement communities. Rebecca, age 77 and a long-time resident of the Detroit neighborhood of Lafayette Park, expressed to me:
“I would not leave Lafayette Park, I cannot think of anywhere else that I would want to live, it’s my neighborhood, it’s my kibbutz, my support structure and I think we have contributed to it as well. I would not leave Detroit, although there are times when I am absolutely worn out and overwhelmed by the difficulties and the problems that it has, but I have a strong belief that I have a responsibility to participate in doing what I can to improve it.”
Anthropologists have long contended that aging is both an embodied and cultural experience, one that is unique to all individuals. Based on the criteria set forth by Rowe and Kahn, only 12% of older adults age “successfully” in any one given year in the United States (McLaughlin et al 2010); I contend that the Rowe and Kahn notion of “usual” aging has little utility for examining the lives of older adults, as every older person experiences later life differently based on a variety of factors. My research with older adults in Detroit maintains that we not only need to consider individual metrics for aging well, but that different and often stigmatized environments provide opportunities for social lives and community participation that may be sources of great satisfaction, happiness, and support in old age.
McLaughlin, S.J., et al.
2010 Successful Aging in the United States: Prevalence estimates from a national sample of older adults. The Journal of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 65:216-226.
Rowe, John W, and Robert L Kahn
1987 Human aging: usual and successful. Science 237(4811):143-149.
Rubinstein, Robert L, and Kate de Medeiros
2015 “Successful Aging,” Gerontological Theory and Neoliberalism: A Qualitative Critique. The Gerontologist 55(1).
2009 Changing landscapes of power: opulence and the urge for authenticity. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33(2):543-553.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is a worldwide health concern. It is characterized by progressive and irreversible changes in memory, attention, self-care, behavior, motor skills, and language functioning. Currently, about 1 out of 9 adults aged 65 or older have Alzheimer’s, and this figure increases to 1 out of 3 for adults aged 85 or older. A total of 5.2 million Americans have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and this number is projected to more than double by the year 2050 as life expectancy increases.
I am a doctoral candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Wayne State University, conducting research with my primary mentor, Dr. John L. Woodard, and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic, Marquette University, Rosalind Franklin University, and the University of Maryland. Our group studies Alzheimer’s disease; however, we do not directly work with anyone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, we are working with healthy older adults without any major memory concerns. The reason for this is that the changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease accumulate for up to 20 years before we see any observable clinical symptoms such as memory loss or difficulty with self-care. Thus, by the time individuals are diagnosed with the condition, treatments may have little to no impact in altering the disease course because so much damage has already occurred.
Our lab is interested in attempting to detect signs of Alzheimer’s disease as early as possible. One promising method for studying risk for Alzheimer’s disease is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI is a special type of MRI scan in which we can detect which regions of the brain are most active when an individual is engaged in a particular task.
In our research, we have utilized a simple task called the Famous Name Discrimination Task, in which participants are shown a series of names on a computer screen while in the MRI scanner. The names are either well-recognizable names of famous people (e.g., Elton John, Bill Clinton) or non-famous names drawn randomly from the phone book. The participants’ task is simply to press a button indicating whether the name is famous or non-famous; most older adults can successfully complete this task at close to 100% accuracy.
We’ve found that when people recognize famous names, they use a network of brain regions that are also many of the same regions associated with the early changes in Alzheimer’s disease. Further, we can see differences in brain recruitment between healthy older adults with and without risk factors for Alzheimer’s, including having a parent with the condition and/or possessing the APOE ε4 allele, a gene associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. For example, individuals with these risk factors typically display a greater amount of brain activity than those without the risk factors, indicating that these individuals may have to use more “brain power” to perform the task. This finding could indicate early changes in brain function potentially associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Importantly, we observed these differences in older adults who were performing normally on psychological tests of memory skills and who reported no concerns in self-care abilities.
When we followed these individuals 18 months later, we found that the fMRI brain activity was useful in predicting who showed early cognitive changes in memory testing. This finding substantiated that fMRI may be clinically useful in determining who is at the highest risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Identifying these individuals is important because it allows for preventative interventions to be implemented as early as possible. Specifically, a number of lifestyle behaviors, including physical activity, social engagement, cognitively stimulating activities, and a Mediterranean-style diet have all been associated with a lower likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Currently, we are working on developing new tasks that may be even more sensitive to risk for Alzheimer’s disease. These tasks are similar in presentation style to the Famous Name Discrimination Task, but require recognition of more specific information associated with famous names, including an individual’s occupational category (e.g., Politician, Musician, Actor, etc.), specific bodies of work, and life events. We believe that studying this more specific information may be more sensitive to the subtle brain changes that occur early in the Alzheimer’s disease process.
For more information, please see:
Sugarman, MA, Woodard, JL, Nielson, KA, Seidenberg, M, Smith, JC, Durgerian, S, & Rao, SM (2012). Functional magnetic resonance imaging of semantic memory as a presymptomatic biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease risk. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: Molecular Basis of Disease 1822, 442-456. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2011.09.016
Woodard, JL & Sugarman, MA (2012). Functional magnetic resonance imaging in aging and dementia: detection of age-related cognitive changes and prediction of cognitive decline. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences 10, 113-136. DOI: 10.1007/7854_2011_159
Over the past fifty years the Institute of Gerontology has made exciting and groundbreaking discoveries through our research on aging. Our multi-disciplinary institute has examined aging through a variety of lenses with a focus on recognizing the valuable contributions of each. We’re not just scholars, we’re supporters of future scientists and their development. The IOG remains steadfast in providing a unique venue for students to advance their own research, platform to share that research, and opportunities to learn about other research.
While we have and will persist towards expanding knowledge on the social, emotional, physical, environmental, financial and occupational complexities affiliated with growing old, we also plan to continue to pave the way for getting pertinent information to those who need it most. In our fifty years, Detroit has been at the forefront of our mission, and that won’t change. Through outreach we’ll continue to create learning opportunities for those who provide care for older adults including social workers, nurses, administrators, occupational therapists, and educators via our continuing education events and conferences. We also create spaces for older adults to learn, whether at our educational forums or in our writing workshops where experience informs expression.
The IOG has come a long way since 1965 and our sights are set on continuing exploration of the dynamic conditions and challenges that aging presents. Within our halls conversations continue to spark uncommon collaborations and unique opportunities for innovation in research, training, advising, and education. We look forward to many more years of following our passion- improving the lives of older adults in Detroit and beyond.
To learn more about the IOG please visit us @ http://www.iog.wayne.edu/index.php
In a trailer that housed Mr. Todd’s fourth grade class, I first realized I would be a scientist. I was a determined 4-foot-tall girl with freckles and, in my innocence, science was the action of possibility. Mr. Todd was the first teacher to encourage my fascination, and I adored him for it. Yet at the same time, I faced the reality of prejudice against my sex. I had earned the coveted first place ranking on multiplication tables. I remember my male peers jeered when I picked out a small hobby motor from the prize box. “You’re a girl,” one said. “You can’t make anything with that.” A week later, I stood before Mr. Todd with a defiant smirk and a clockwork windmill, powered by my prize motor, which he generously allowed me to display on my desk.
I went on to earn a doctorate in neuroscience and, sadly, the fourth grade was not the last time I faced gender bias. I am not alone in the experience. Dedicated elementary school programming has increased the number of girls who major in a STEM discipline (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as undergraduates1. But women still represent less than 20% of many STEM majors2. In my field, about half of neuroscience graduate students are female, but only 25% of tenured faculty in university departments are women2. This is not unique to neuroscience: male scientists in applied and university jobs outnumber women by 2.5 times2. In other words, recruitment of women is improving, but retention is lagging.
The lack of tenured female faculty appears as an implicit bias against women in science. Tautology of women being biologically different from men was used for years to excuse the unbalanced representation in higher education. Recently, however, under the masthead of a top neuroscience journal, this was dismissed in recognition of an implicit bias in hiring and retaining women scientists3. The lack of women faculty is another barrier for female students when weighing the risk of pursuing an academic or applied science post. Increasing diversity in academic departments will improve retention of women in science. The good news is that with awareness comes change; in time we will see more women in higher education. Perhaps we can hurry this along with dedicated mentorship.
I was fortunate as a graduate student to have a second appointment at the Institute of Gerontology, which embraces diversity and champions multi-disciplinary research of aging. In the Institute’s halls are phenomenal mentors who work diligently to create a culture wherein all students, regardless of gender, are encouraged to be leaders in departmental functions and their respective fields of research. And while I have personally benefitted from this, the more important result is that the Institute and the scientific work it produces have benefitted as well. This conclusion follows from the simple truth that inclusion of all voices in the STEM fields is not only a matter of fairness, but also a matter of empirical quality. Mentoring women toward careers in science ensures diversity in the academe, which is the best opportunity for inspiration and innovation. This is a core philosophy of the Institute of Gerontology; one that I have come to value even more in retrospect.
For more on mentoring women in science:
Dean, DJ. (2009). Getting the most out of your mentoring relationships: A handbook for women in STEM. Springer: New York, NY.
Association for Women in Science. http://www.awis.org/
Women in Science. http://www.womeninscience.org/resources.php
1 National Center for Women and Information Technology. “Girls in it: The facts”. www.ncwit.org
2 National Science Foundation. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/start.cfm
3 Editorial. (2010). Wanted: women in research. Nature Neuroscience, 13(3): 267.
Living with diabetes means dealing with several scary statistics. Older adults with diabetes are at increased risk of heart and vision problems, kidney disease, and vascular changes that can damage limbs. Diabetes is also on the rise: more than 25% of US citizens age 65 or older have it, with the highest rates in African Americans and Hispanics.
There is a positive side to the diabetes coin, though. This disease is very treatable. With the right medications and a commitment to diet and lifestyle changes, damage from diabetes can be reduced or eliminated, and sometimes diabetes can even be reversed.
You Make All the Difference
The goal is to keep blood glucose levels as close to normal as safely possible to reduce the risk of major complications. You must be vigilant to achieve this. Low blood glucose can make you feel weak, confused, irritable, hungry, or tired. You may sweat a lot or get a headache. You may feel shaky. If your blood glucose drops lower, you could pass out or have a seizure. High blood glucose can make you very thirsty and tired, blur your vision, and cause frequent urination. You may also feel sick to your stomach.
Healthy eating, regular exercise, maintaining good blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and testing glucose levels are the tools to control diabetes. Some people may also require insulin pills or injections to control blood glucose. You should monitor blood glucose levels daily, and have an A1C laboratory test several times a year. The A1C determines your average blood glucose level over the past 2 to 3 months, an indicator of how well your body is being protected from diabetes damage.
Support from a Team of Experts
A team of medical specialists can provide whole-patient care for your diabetes:
• a primary care physician
• an endocrinologist (specialize in diabetes care)
• a certified diabetes educator (often a nurse or dietitian) to teach meal and lifestyle changes
• a podiatrist to care for your feet, since they are vulnerable to diabetes’ effects
• and an ophthalmologist for eye care
As the person with diabetes, you are the captain of your health care team. Your self-care and attention to symptoms can take the scare out of diabetes. Make the effort to control your diabetes, and you lessen the chance that diabetes will control you.
The Institute of Gerontology offers free learning workshops throughout the year on diabetes, hypertension and other health issues of special concern to older adults. Visit the calendar at iog.wayne.edu for details.
Cheryl Deep, MA is the Director of Media Relations and Communications at the IOG, visit her profile here.
When we think of innovation, we often think of new technology. This is true of just about every field, including aging services. There are plenty of technological advances in aging services: Remote monitoring systems that can tell a family caregiver a thousand miles away when Mom has gotten out of bed, gone into the bathroom, or opened the refrigerator door. Medicine dispensers that remind people when to take their pills. Internet-connected medical devices that can send blood pressure readings to a doctor in another place. Cars that drive themselves. Even smart flooring that can detect a slip and instantly soften to absorb the impact of a fall. All of these things are wonderful. They have a high “Wow!” factor, and its fun and easy to imagine technology solving all of our problems in a sort of science fiction utopia. But in the real world, that’s probably not going to happen. Some of these things may be quite helpful, and some may be a more cost effective way of doing things that service providers already do, but they are not a panacea. As long as there are older people who don’t get the dental care they need, who live in substandard housing, who are victims of fraud and abuse, or who have to choose between buying groceries and filling a prescription, our biggest problems cannot be solved by electronic gadgets.
Innovation involves a lot more than just technology. Most of the best innovations in the field of aging services involve people and organizations and how they relate to one another, how they help one another, how they share data and refer clients between one another, and how they cooperate to stretch precious service dollars further. Service providers have to constantly assess changing needs and respond to those changes. They have to evaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it, and try to do it better and less expensively and more effectively. They have to break down the silos that divide them, bridge divides, build partnerships, collaborate, and avoid the turf wars that have wasted resources and diverted their attention from the task at hand, which is to serve the needs of older adults and those who care for them.
How can that be done? The first thing we need to remember is that any individual agency cannot do it alone. They need to reach out and work with other organizations that serve the older adult population, or serve other populations with similar needs. The movement in Michigan toward ADRCs, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, is a good example of this trend. Those other organizations don’t have to be non-profits, and they don’t even have to be social service agencies at all. Particularly in rural areas, leveraging existing organizations can help seniors in a much more cost effective way, and can help the other organizations as well. Think about the places that seniors often congregate: Churches. VFW and Elks and Knights of Columbus halls. Diners and coffee shops. Pharmacies and post offices and public libraries. If aging service providers are trying to reach out, if they’re trying to develop community based programming, if they’re trying to stretch service dollars, they should think about ways they can work with businesses, clubs, and other public and private institutions to distribute information, provide services, and maybe even help them expand their senior membership or customer base. They need to look for opportunities to create partnerships that benefit all involved. These kinds of synergies can increase the impact of every dollar we spend providing services to older adults who need them.
And even among aging service providers, they need to work more closely together to minimize service overlap, fill gaps, play to each other’s strengths, and find as many ways to cooperate as they can. One organization that I work with is called the Southeast Michigan Senior Regional Collaborative. It covers Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, and it has more than 25 member organizations that serve seniors in some capacity. They have found it in their interests to band together to do everything from assess needs in the community, train staff members, advocate for older adults with policymakers, gather and report data to funders, and join forces to exploit economies of scale in back office operations and purchase of services. I’m not being a Pollyanna; community partnerships and collaborations take great time and effort to build, can be difficult to hold together, and sometimes require an immediate investment that does not fully pay off until some time later. Collaboration can be hard work, it can be risky, but the potential rewards are great. The pie is shrinking and the number of people clamoring for pieces of it is growing. Organizations that serve older adults can no longer afford the luxury of fighting each other or trying to do their work in isolation.
Another thing to remember is that seniors are not a different species. They’re human beings too, key members of our communities, with families and friends of all ages, with children and grandchildren and neighborhood kids they care deeply about. The interests of all these different people intersect in some way or another, and sometimes those interests can be served in tandem. If you are affiliated in any way with the aging network, you have probably have heard of Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which are wonderful programs whose full potential has never been realized due to underfunding. However, there are plenty of other innovative ways to involve older people in their communities, and many of them are quite inexpensive. Take Experience Corps, for example. It started as a small pilot program in Baltimore and has expanded to include over 2,000 older adult volunteers in 20 cities, including Grand Rapids right here in Michigan. The older volunteers work with their local public elementary schools to tutor young children in reading. Research has shown that those types of volunteer efforts boost student performance, reduce truancy and behavior problems in schools, help reduce the burden on teachers with crowded classrooms, and most importantly for our purposes, increase the mental and physical well-being and life satisfaction of the older volunteers. Everybody needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning, especially those who have retired from work and whose children are grown. It may be a cliché, but programs like Experience Corps create a win-win situation for everyone.
There are plenty of other good examples of ways in which intergenerational synergies can be developed to help serve older adults, children, and families together. In my next blog post, I’ll review a few other intergenerational programs that can address multiple problems simultaneously, and I will urge aging service providers to break out of the time-worn molds that have held them back and reduced the effectiveness and efficiency of the services they deliver.
This essay was adapted from the keynote address by Thomas B. Jankowski, PhD, at the Midland County Council on Aging Annual Meeting and Senior Services 50th Anniversary Dinner, November 12, 2013.