Category Archives: Positive Aging

Positive Aging: Getting the Word Out

SAMS2-8-14I was fortunate to be interviewed by Sharon Dargay at the Observer-Eccentric, Hometown Life publication.  Her article appeared last weekend.  I tried to make the point that we need to look aging squarely in the eye, so that we can prepare for that period of our lives and make the most of its opportunities.  The media can help us change perceptions of aging that are outmoded and inaccurate.  Older adults aren’t old ladies in house dresses knitting in their rocking chairs or old men puttering around in the garage.  Today’s older adult is engaged and active.  We’re involved  in our communities; we’re staffing the polls; we’re helping our children and grandchildren; we’re mentoring younger people; we’re volunteering; we’re working out; we’re caring for ill family members; we’re engaging in creative pursuits; and we’re starting encore careers.  We also command significant assets and income.  I truly appreciated the opportunity to promote positive aging and to emphasize the need to transform our attitudes and perceptions of later life!

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Department of Aging Studies, Madonna University

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March is National Nutrition Month

yellowpeppersAs we get older, we have to be mindful of what we eat.  With slowing metabolism, it’s easier to gain weight, and with less efficient digestion, we have to be sure we’re getting all the right nutrients packed into our diets.  To help prevent illness we want to include a lot of fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants.  Keeping up the normal flora in the gut is increasingly demonstrated to be a benefit to optimal functioning.  Preventing or minimizing bone loss required mineral supplementation.  Aging well requires more education and care than when we were younger.  You can’t retire from managing your own well-being!

ncoa-logoThe National Council on Aging has developed an infographic with helpful links, to help remind older adults of important nutrition habits to cultivate.  They also have produced several YouTube videos on eating well in later life.  I know I can use all the help I can get to stay healthy and able to function optimally.  Pass it on!

6 Ways to Eat WellSue Sweeney, Chair, Department of Aging Studies, Madonna University

What “Ego Integrity” Looks Like

Erik Erikson

You have probably encountered Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, in which he posits eight epigenetic stages.  In each stage a developmental crisis must be positively resolved for optimal further growth to occur.  The final crisis occurs in late life, in which a person faces mortality and examines his or her life.  This life review can result in either ego integrity, a sense of appreciation for one’s life as lived, or in despair, a sense of regret and disappointment over the outcomes of one’s life.

In teaching adult development, I’ve found it much easier to convey the experience of despair.  Students seem to understand that a person could look back over her lifetime and conclude that she had not accomplished enough, had made bad choices, or harmed others unnecessarily.  Getting across the experience of ego integrity has been less successful.  Feeling a sense of satisfaction seems a pale accomplishment in contrast to the wrenching feeling of despair.  Then I read a brief essay in the New York Times online edition by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks

Among other writings, Dr. Sacks has written numerous very readable books about how people experience and adapt to unusual neurological phenomena and pathologies.  He is 81 and describes himself as robust.  However, he recently learned that he has metastatic and terminal cancer from a rare tumor he’d thought had been cured nine years ago.  The article, entitled, “My Own Life”, contains what I consider an eloquent representation of ego integrity.  It contains  a deeply genuine expression of expansiveness, individuality, and aliveness in the face of impending death.  He ends his essay with this observation, “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I urge you to read his moving essay.  To me it contains inspiration that each of us may reach the end of our lives  with a measure of authenticity, clarity, and gratitude.  It also conveys a sense of celebration of a life well-lived.  That’s the kind of ego integrity I hope to accomplish and wish for all of us!

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Department of Aging Studies, Madonna University

America’s Oldest Teacher

I recently read an article about an exceptional nursing home that excels in care of persons with dementia.  One of the staff was quoted as say, “when I get dementia, I want….”  Maybe she thinks in terms of the inevitability of cognitive impairment because of working in memory care or maybe she thinks that way to reduce emotional distance from the residents with dementia.   However, I got mentally stuck when I read that quotation.  I realized that I don’t want to believe that cognitive impairment is inevitable.  I’d rather aim for clear thinking and functional memory for as long as I live. That’s why I cherish the models of very old people who continue to grow intellectually and challenge themselves.

Agnes Zhelesnik's 100th Birthday Party

Agnes Zhelesnik’s 100th Birthday Party

Agnes Zhelesnik is a case in point.  At 100 years of age, she’s teaching home economics full time at Sundance Elementary School in New Jersey.  She got bored with playing bridge, so she found her present job at age 81.  She hasn’t even called in sick in the last two years.  I believe that a deep sense of purpose and meaningful pursuits help us to remain healthier, live more happily, and ultimately live longer.  I want to be like Agnes!  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University

Influenza Trends for 2013-14 Season

CDCLogoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get the flu shot.  This 2013-14 season a particularly nasty version of influenza, pH1N1, is showing up around the country, with reports of hospitalizations.  In a note to clinicians, issued just before Christmas, the CDC observes that this strain of the flu virus tends to affect young and middle-aged adults more than older adults.  I would guess that older adults may have been exposed to this strain earlier in their lives.  Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to get inoculated, especially if you have any respiratory ailment such as asthma.  Venues in my area of southeastern Michigan seem to have vaccine still available. The vaccinehealthmap can help you locate a place to get the injection that is near you.

The shot is most effective if you are healthy when you receive it, and it takes about two weeks for the body to respond with full immunity. The CDC publishes a weekly flu map, showing the states in which influenza is showing up locally, regionally, or state-wide.  They also publish online an informative flyer on the flu shot called “No More Excuses”, which can help dispel worries about getting inoculated.

Vaccination to prevent illness is an important aspect of primary disease prevention.  Older adults are wise to avoid the risk of complications that can accompany such illnesses as influenza.  We also have a responsibility to those we care about to help keep them healthy and to minimize the extent that they need to take care of us.  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University

Older Drivers

WPRBetaTaglineI was interviewed recently by Wisconsin Public Radio on the topic of older drivers.  There is a bill in the Wisconsin state legislature to require drivers over age 75 to renew their license more often than younger drivers.  Families so often struggle with discussing driving with older relatives because it’s such an important ability to quality of life and because public transportation is so limited, especially in rural areas.  Here’s the description of the piecehttp://www.wpr.org/challenges-elderly-driving  You can download the audio or listen online from that same link.

Driving is  an important issue for older adults and their families for many reasons.  Older adults more often suffer severe injury and death when involved in vehicle accidents, because of age-related physical changes and chronic illness.  Accident prevention is therefore an urgent goal.  There are a number of helpful Web pages on driving in later life.  AARP has a driver safety page on their site, which highlights their driver safety course for senior drivers, offered both online and face to face.  The course costs between $16 and $20 depending on whether the person is an AARP member.   I have my students take the We Need to Talk online seminar on the same AARP page, which discusses when to stop driving and how to discuss driving cessation with older drivers.  It helps them to have a more empathic view of driving and understand what driving means to people, beyond just getting from point A to point B.

CarFit is an organization that provides events in which older drivers bring their vehicle, and trained volunteers assess how to better fit the car to the needs and limitations of the driver.  While not every area of the U.S. is covered by these events, the Web site has a number of videos that illustrate proper alignment or fit of the driver to the car, such as the optimal distance between the steering wheel and the driver’s chest to prevent or minimize injury from an airbag, mirror adjustment for effective view of the side and rear, or the minimum distance needed of the line-of-sight above the steering wheel for a safe view of the road.

The Hartford Insurance Company has a very useful Web site on Family Conversations With Older Drivers.    The site offers conversation starters, conversation planners, a Warning Signs Worksheet, information on driving evaluation, a worksheet to evaluate transportation alternatives, and other helpful information.  The company also provides quite a few free guidebooks with information on a number of aspects of driving, in both electronic and paper form.

The American Medical Association has resources for physicians on older drivers, including a Web-based educational course called “Medical Fitness to Drive:  Is Your Patient at Risk?” and a “Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers –  2010 Edition”, developed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The Guide can be downloaded and has information useful to professionals and consumers.

Finally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an Older Drivers Education Web page with electronic brochures on adapting vehicles, conversations with older drivers, safe driving, and driving transition.

With the Baby Boom generation aging, there will be more and more older drivers on the road.  We need to be both sensitive and sensible so that the safety of everyone on the highway is optimized while the rights and quality of life of the older drivers are preserved as long as possible.  It’s gratifying that there are so many resources available to help us address the issue in informed and compassionate ways.  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University

Flu + You Campaign

Illness prevention is an important aspect of positive aging.  One of the easier ways to prevent illness is through timely innoculations, such as the flu shot, and early fall is the time to get the shot for optimum protection against influenza.  The National Council on Aging , NCOA, has a very robust toolkit for organizations and groups to use to educate older adults about the benefits of getting the flu shot.  The campaign is called Flu + You, and the toolkit includes a guide, a brochure, a PowerPoint presentation, handout????????????????????????s, and posters, with materials in Spanish, as well as English.  There is also a widget, with HTML coding, that you can place on your Web site which provides updated information on the flu season.   If you don’t want to download the materials, you can order most of them, for free, from the National Council on Aging.  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University