Aging, both at the personal and societal level, is relatively new historically. There have never been so many people living into old age. Alarmist headlines warn of the approaching “silver tsunami” and have led to what I call “the doom and gloom of the baby boom.” Particularly concerning is that most of us will care for an aging parent at some point in our adult lives.
Researchers know a lot about caregiving, particularly that people feel underprepared for taking on this common life role. It’s time to look beyond the silver tsunami to the silver lining. Consider these tips to optimize both healthy aging and healthy caregiving.
In reality, most of us remain healthy and productive for much of our later years. For example, older adults are starting new businesses at a rate higher than other age groups and serving in “encore” careers that benefit society. The average caregiver is in their early 60s. Clearly, older adults have much to offer. But most of what we hear and believe about older age is profoundly – and harmfully – negative. We need to reframe how we think and talk about aging.
First, don’t buy into ageist stereotypes! Those who have negative views of aging are more likely to experience poor health, and even die earlier, than those with views that are more positive. Research shows that when someone buys into negative age stereotypes, they experience heightened cardiovascular activity, including higher heart and blood pressure rates, which stresses the heart over the long term. The good news is that these negative views can be reversed. Research has also shown that people with positive attitudes toward aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer.
Second, live a life of meaning and purpose. People want to feel useful at all points in their lives – whether it’s by tackling large societal issues, being a helpful neighbor, or passing on traditions to grandchildren. People in later life are especially well equipped to play an important role because they have access to the larger picture. Erik Erikson called this generativity – leaving something of the self behind for future generations. We all can leave a legacy, and later life is a great time to pursue this.
Prepare to care.
Caregiving should be recognized as a normal part of life, not as an unexpected emergency.
Have conversations with family members about their later life wishes now. It’s much easier to consider caregiving options when all parties see them as far in the future. Plans may change over time, but it is much easier to adjust existing plans than it is to make initial plans upon being discharged from the hospital after a life-changing health event.
Family caregiving for people with chronic illness is common, and Oregon has long been on the vanguard with innovative options for long-term care other than nursing homes. Hopefully, technological advancements will enable more older adults to age in place (within their homes), the preference of most older adults, so they may never have to move to a child’s home, assisted living or nursing home.
Family caregivers need support.
Caregiving is so often characterized as a burden, and this negative perspective is harmful. Recent research shows that people report many positive outcomes from caregiving, including feeling increased mastery and purpose in life, deepening relationships, and acting as a model for their children. However, longtime intensive caregiving, such as for people with dementia, puts one at risk for depression and social isolation. Caregivers under these conditions sometimes feel that caregiving has encroached on all areas of their lives. Caregiving stress can also cascade into other areas, such as financial stress related to affording long-term care, as well as job stress due to juggling career and parental responsibilities and tasks such as taking time off to accompany parents to doctors’ appointments.
It is this stress, which builds over time, that can be damaging. Families need support, such as increased adult day services and respite care. Organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association and AARP are advocating for more family caregiving support, and the state legislature will be considering a number of bills this session that address these types of concerns. These organizations also serve as an informational resource for individuals and families in need.
Yes, we will be living in a society that has a much higher percentage of older people. Rather than seeing only challenges, let’s tap into the opportunities that vital older adults bring. We are in the midst of creating what it means to age well – how exciting is that?