For many older adults, the conversation about aging in place goes something like this: “Mom, Dad, we’re really concerned about your ability to manage the house. We’re afraid one of you will fall and break a hip, or that you might leave the stove on when you go to the grocery store. We’re not sure Dad should really be driving anymore either. It’s time to think about assisted living.”
As caregivers, while we may be saying this from a place of genuine concern, the messages wrapped in this conversation are negative—assuming the older adults are frail, questioning their independence, and suggesting a one-size-fits-all solution without hearing the other side of the story or considering other options.
Is it any wonder why most seniors resist this approach?
“As soon as they hear a negative message, they’re done,” says Louis Tenenbaum, a leading authority on aging in place and a member of the Family Caregiver Council. “We need to get the conversation to be about personal responsibility, reducing the burden on family, avoiding frailty, and preserving independence,” he says.
Empowering Older Adults vs. Taking Their Power Away
Tenenbaum also believes that elder care professionals and family members need to “lead from behind,” empowering older adults so they are comfortable with taking action instead of the other way around.
“Everything we say or do sends a message,” says Tenenbaum. “If we don’t understand its impact, we are being irresponsible.” He compares it to a remodeling project: to have success, you must know the current condition of the space—and keep the goal in mind.
Making the message positive and relevant is the key to producing a “positive cognitive reaction,” per Tenenbaum, but we also have to make it easy for the individual to take the next step—be it an assisted living move, a home modification to ease mobility challenges, or a decision to downsize.
If your Mom has expressed that she’s tired of cooking and maintaining the house, perhaps presenting senior living as a place where someone else does the cooking and cleaning (independent living) will trigger a more positive reaction than “I’d love to take over the cooking for you, Mom” (dependence). Perhaps integrating some tech tools like a home monitoring system or apps that simplify medication management and meal planning will make all the difference. Does Dad struggle with mobility? Don’t assume assisted living is the right move: a combination of assistive devices and video games that improve balance may be enough.
Readjusting the Public’s Point of View of the Aging Population
Our society’s view of older adults is partly to blame. We’re bombarded by images of happy, retired senior couples riding their bikes into the sunset, but we know that is not always a realistic picture of later life. A report produced the Frameworks Institute, Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America, seeks to address those misconceptions and in turn, spark constructive dialogue that generates productive policy action. For example: Our culture’s negative “us vs. them” attitude leads to “a sense that any public policy initiatives made on behalf of older Americans will come at the expense of actions on behalf of ‘the rest of us.’ ” Instead, we need to build a system of support that is sustainable and will empower all of us to make more informed, personalized decisions about the care we want.
Keep the Conversation Going
Perhaps what makes these conversations so difficult, both at individual and public policy levels, is that aging in place is not one-size-fits-all. There is no single, simple solution that will work for everyone, and that’s OK. Some prefer to stay at home for as long as possible. Some look forward to calling a vibrant, amenity-and service-rich retirement home or assisted living community. Some are still finding their way (read several scenarios in What Older Adults Want You to Know About Caregiving). However, if we reframe our approach from “You need help, and I suggest this solution” to “How do you want to age in place,” the end result is likely to be one that everyone can get behind.
ACT NOW: It’s time for a more positive message on aging, and it starts in our homes and neighborhoods. Share this post on your social media profiles to change our view of aging in place for the better.