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April / May 2002 Cover


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The Quality of Life


The Quality of Life
UMaine's Center on Aging focuses on education, research and community collaboration to address the state's dramatic demographics

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Maine's Older Adults
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.
 

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Engaging Elders
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 social workers.

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 retooled.

"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 healthy community.

"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 members.

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
April-May, 2002

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