Overcoming Ageism in Senior Living
What does ageism look like in today’s seniors housing and care industry? According to Lori Alford, COO of Avanti Senior Living, ageism rears its ugly head whenever “we think of older people as separate from ourselves, when we compartmentalize them and talk down to them, instead of seeing ourselves as just like them.”
Although the term ageism refers to age-based discrimination, that doesn’t necessarily mean ageism comes from a position of prejudice. Alford, a well-known industry innovator with nearly 20 years of experience serving seniors and their families, sees it more as “a lack of awareness and education that comes off as disrespect.” She believes ageism “is everywhere—from how the aging services sector advertises, to the programming it offers, to the decorum at the community level.”
Ageism is bad for the both the spirit and the health of seniors. A recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that one in five elders experiences ageism in health care settings and those who experience it frequently are at a higher risk of developing disabilities or seeing their existing disabilities worsen. Compounding the problem is the fact that many Americans do not really understand that ageism is a serious issue and can be dismissive of seniors in general.
What can be done? Alford has a fix: “Stop giving seniors what the world thinks old people want and start giving them what people in their prime want, just modified to help them live successfully with physical and sometimes mental limitations.” In this article, we examine the role ageism plays in senior living and explore what companies like Avanti are doing to combat the status quo and create communities for a new generation of seniors.
When You Assume
As the Baby Boomer generation enters their retirement years, seniors housing and care operators are quickly finding out that this new cohort of seniors is different from their predecessors.
“The first of the Boomers are now turning 72, and they don’t see themselves as old,” noted Alford. “They see themselves as youthful and strong, and many communities are still trying to sell them on bingo nights and canned food. Times have changed so much, but we’re still treating older adults like they’re from the dark ages.”
A quick scan of many industry websites, publications and marketing materials lends credence to Alford’s view. “Do these organizations know what a 72-year-old looks like today? I think of Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Barbara Streisand,” she said, referring to the stock photos often seen of white-haired seniors.
Society’s assumptions about what seniors look like and what they expect out of retirement is at the core of the ageism problem. The FrameWorks Institute, an independent nonprofit organization which roots communications practice in the cognitive and social sciences, is leading a multi-pronged campaign to address and combat ageism through a variety or resources and research. One paper, “Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understanding of Aging in America,” highlights several destructive assumptions society tends to make about seniors;
- Assuming seniors are not interested in participating in the digital and social media revolution;
- assuming that if they wanted to participate in civic activities, there are programs available to them and;
- assuming aging is merely a series of obstacles to be overcome, as opposed to a series of opportunities for personal growth and civic contribution.
Changing a narrative that has been decades in the making is no easy feat. However, there are many developments in the seniors housing and care industry that should give hope to those seeking an end to ageism.
Leading the Way
In recent years, leaders in the senior living industry have increasingly been speaking out against ageism. For example, LeadingAge CEO and president Katie Smith Sloan made combating ageism the focal point of her presentation at the annual LeadingAge meeting in 2016. Describing the organization’s new vision to “permanently change the image of aging in our society,” she argued ageism negatively affects all aspects of the industry, from hiring to fundraising, and needs to be confronted head-on. We need to stop treating aging as “a disease that cannot be cured,” she argued, and actively work to negate the notion that seniors are a burden to deal with, as opposed to a rich life to celebrate.
To that end, there have been many positive examples of organizations making an effort to change the perceptions of aging. For example, the Administration on Aging, which celebrates Older Americans Month each May, has made their 2018 theme “Engage at Every Age.” The program aims to promote the perception of seniors as valued elders who share their wisdom and enrich their communities. The organization emphasizes the importance of seniors staying engaged, be it through mentoring, volunteering, or other community activities, and will highlight resources and programs throughout the month of May to promote this goal.
Another recent initiative making waves is one called “Old People Are Cool,” which was started by the CEO of Linked Senior, a platform that provides person-centered care through life enrichment and dementia engagement using technology and non-drug therapy. The “Old People Are Cool” initiative asks supporters to take an oath to fight ageism and to encourage others to do the same. It aims to be a word-of-mouth type of campaign that spreads with the help of a variety of merchandise, from clothing to stickers.
An Example in Avanti
Avanti Senior Living, based in The Woodlands, Texas, offers assisted living (AL) and memory care (MC) that aims to deliver empowered, ageless and healthy living. Forward thinking is a way of life at Avanti, as evident by the fact that “Avanti” is Italian for “forward,” and its communities offer a wide array of innovative features and approaches. The manner in which care is delivered at its communities is a prime example.
“I think so many companies in our industry fail to understand that AL and MC can be just as lively as IL, and that’s why you end up with such sterile environments,” said Alford. “The problem is, we’re not seeing care environments as the jumping off point for culture and design that they really are. Avanti flips that around. We are a lifestyle community that subtly offers care services as people need them. The ‘care’ is discreet.”
Examples of that discreet care include tucking walkers and wheelchairs into a cabinet at dinner, no overhead paging, team members dressed in “crisp black swag” as opposed to scrubs or khakis, and no medication carts in the hallways.
“We intentionally keep care in the background,” added Alford. “No one wants to be reminded they need care. We say we provide an environment that seniors want and deserve. And it just so happens, we provide excellent care.”
Design also plays a big role at Avanti, as communities are built to appeal to people of all ages. “Every element of an Avanti community is design-forward and features a lot of attention to detail and lighting, because everyone wants to come home to a beautiful space, no matter what age we are,” said Alford. “The hallways are always richly decorated with fine art, which gives life to the walls and creates touchstones for anyone struggling with memory issues. Plus, you hear music that plays in a boutique hotel, not ‘old folks’ music.”
Alford added that all the design elements are created with the intention of supporting the programming. She believes that people’s artistic and intellectual pursuits are what keep people young, and Avanti communities are designed to support such pursuits. “No one loses interest in their passions just because they need a little help with daily living,” she said. “Our job is to support them in doing what they love.”
Another innovative program at Avanti that defies ageism is its “Mind.Body.Strength” program, which focuses on residents’ strengths. A full time personal trainer works with new residents to help them feel comfortable with physical activity. For example, one resident came in using a wheelchair and then worked with a trainer privately in his apartment. After a while, the resident felt comfortable enough to attend group classes, and today he’s using a walker and is proud that he can remain mobile without a chair.
Today’s senior is much different from a senior of 30 years ago, and operators need to keep that in mind, especially when considering the design and programming at their communities. As the seniors housing and care industry continues to evolve, companies like Avanti that focus on innovation and overcoming ageism are sure to lead the way.
“We reject the idea that aging is static,” said Alford. “Our job is take the outside world and deliver it to seniors in a modified way. They can do everything a younger person can do, it just must be modified to fit their needs.”
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