The Quality of Life
UMaine's Center on Aging focuses on education, research and
community collaboration to address the state's dramatic demographics
Older adults have different ways of maintaining their quality of
life. Their determination, coupled with assistance from social
services and caregivers, can help ensure the elders remain
integrated, engaged and respected in their communities.
As a society, we need to understand that aging entails loss--from
physical and mental capacity to income and financial stability, and
social support networks, including the resources needed to interact
effectively in the world.
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As a nation, we have neglected older
adults, according to gerontologist Lenard Kaye. Therapists want to
resolve conflicts and physicians want to cure. Social workers want to
bring about change — improved quality of life — and that can be
difficult to institute when service systems for older adults are
nonexistent or incomplete. As a result, the field of gerontology isn't
always attractive to those in the healthcare or service professions.
"Allied health professionals, nurses, physicians, psychologists and
social workers all have been guilty of steering away from issues on
aging," says Kaye, who directs the new Center on Aging in The University
of Maine College of Business, Public Policy and Health. "As a result,
those who work with older adults in the community are poorly prepared."
Yet, at the same time, there is a demographic explosion of older adults,
Kaye says. Now more than ever, healthcare and service providers must
have geriatric training to meet elders' cross-disciplinary needs.
"Health professionals heading into the workplace unprepared for the
dramatically increasing numbers have a rude awakening," says Kaye.
"That's why the Center on Aging is so crucial. Young professionals
entering the workplace need the skills to do justice to older citizens
in the state."
Maine is "older" than most states, Kaye says. Almost 15 percent of the
state's population — 200,000 residents — are age 65 and older. As a
result, "we're witnessing what the rest of the nation has yet to
witness," he says.
By 2020, the elderly population in the state is projected to grow by
more than 40 percent, to the point that one in five residents will be
age 65 and older, according to the Maine State Planning Office. The
fastest growing segment is the "oldest old" — those 85 and older.
In the "demographic revolution" nationwide, the population of older
adults is growing three times faster than that of the young.
The graying population in Maine and across the country is stressing the
health and human services workforce. It also is providing opportunities
for innovative services and product development. Such a growing
population requires expanded and specialized services in all sectors,
including education, health and social services, housing,
transportation, business and recreation.
UMaine's Center on Aging is one such initiative. The center is dedicated
to responding to the needs of a rapidly increasing older population by
focusing on the highest quality training, education and practical
research that can make a difference.
"We want to build strong relationships with organizations in the local
community and throughout the state. That's the best way to serve
citizens," says Kaye, a UMaine professor of social work.
The mission of the Center on Aging is to promote and facilitate
activities on aging through education, research and evaluation, and
community service to maximize the quality of life of older citizens and
their families in Maine. Ultimately, it will involve faculty and
researchers throughout the state, as well as older citizens and members
of the professional service community. In direct partnership, the center
will address a desperate need by preparing professionals and lay people
in "best practices" approaches in serving older adults and in better
appreciating the contributions of elders.
"We may not be able to control the health of older adults, but one thing
we can do is to ensure that people remain engaged, and have a lifeline
and support network for some degree of well-being, stability and reason
for living. Disengagement happens far more than it should," Kaye says.
Earlier this year, the Center on Aging received a two-year, $60,000
grant from the John A. Hartford Foundation of New York City to infuse
UMaine's School of Social Work curriculum with geriatric content. The
same foundation allowed the national Council on Social Work Education to
launch a multi-year initiative, Strengthening Aging and Gerontology
Education for Social Work (SAGE-SW), to increase geriatric competency of
Getting gerontology education to social work students is seen as an
effective means of addressing the unprecedented demographic changes.
"There will be a greater need for social workers to use their skills to
enhance the quality of life for older adults and their families, and to
assist them in navigating ever-changing and increasingly complex health,
mental health, social service and community environments," according to
Strengthening the Impact of Social Work to Improve the Quality of Life
for Older Adults: A Blueprint for the New Millennium, a SAGE-SW report
released last year.
In addition, says Kaye, we need to be more creative in linking elders
with non-monetary services. The infrastructure of our communities and
educational system needs to be mobilized, and those segments that
produce goods and services for older people and their families must be
"We need to educate, train and inform communities and individuals about
the graying of the nation, which results in a new set of needs and
expectations," he says. "Older adults need to be empowered to take
ownership of programs and services."
To succeed, Kaye says, is to see "observable vibrancy in a community
that reflects evidence of intergenerational life." Seeing young and old
walking the streets of a community is evidence that one age group isn't
isolated from another by physical barriers, he says. It signals a
"You know it's working when older people are integrated, engaged and
respected in a community, enjoying a quality of life that isn't totally
determined by financial status."
Research and education on aging issues will aid the state in building a
cadre of educators, scientists and other specialists in the field of
aging who will apply their expertise.
Community-based research currently under way includes the Maine Primary
Partners in Caregiving project, led by Len Kaye, in partnership with
Roberta Downey, executive director of the Eastern Agency on Aging. With
a three-year, $600,000 grant from the U.S. Administration on Aging, the
researchers are collaborating with agencies on aging and family
practitioners in five counties to assess the needs of family caregivers
of the elderly and to offer specialized support services. The goal of
the project is to show that information, training and support services
for caregivers can prevent burnout and improve life for all family
The center also is coordinating a Professional Excellence in Geriatrics
Series — continuing education sessions designed for professional service
providers. The series features presentations by recognized leaders in
geriatric medicine, psychiatry, nursing, social work, law, psychology,
therapies, and health and human service professions.
For older adults, the center is planning a senior college for the
Bangor, Maine, area. It will feature non-credit courses, developed and
taught by older adults, that are a source of enrichment and empowerment.
The community will be formally introduced to the Center on Aging during
"A Celebration of Generations" festival in May. Days will be filled with
lectures, music, information sessions and intergenerational programs.
The festival is offered in collaboration with the Eastern Agency on
Aging and several other groups serving the elderly.
"The idea is to highlight the contributions older people bring to the
community — their wisdom, experience and history, and knowledge of the
region's culture. We want to honor them," Kaye says.
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.