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Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist Jennifer Heston

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenAugust 31, 2013

A Place for Mom is proud to announce the commencement of their annual $1,000 scholarship for advancement in the field of gerontology. This is a general scholarship which will award the selected applicants with a financial donation. We have narrowed-down the finalists, which includes Jennifer Heston.

Congratulations to Jennifer Heston, Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist! Read Jennifer’s essay below, “Like” her page and comment why she has your vote if you feel she deserves to be one of the 5 recipients of the $1,000 scholarship awards.

Jennifer’s Essay

Preparations for the large number of individuals who will be utilizing elder care services must begin with re-conceptualizing the way we look at age and those who live with cognitive challenges such as Alzheimer’s disease.  Our current system of service provision requires a shift in thinking about aging.  Until we, as a society and as service providers, learn to view age differently, we cannot fully embrace the innovations that are necessary to address the growing demands on elder care services.  To that end, I would like to outline a few of the areas where I see this change of thinking to be critical to the innovations we hope to realize.

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Societal Attitudes toward Dementia And Care Partnering

It is well-known that an increase in persons living with dementia will require innovations in care in both formal and informal settings.  In order for those innovations to be possible, we must first begin by examining our societal beliefs about persons living with memory challenges.  The receipt of a dementia diagnosis does not immediately render an individual useless.  Too often, we assign a non-person status to individuals living with dementia which bars them from actively participating in their communities.  One important task for elder care providers is to educate their communities about dementia in a way that affirms the personhood of those living with this challenge.  Then, we must look for ways to continue to engage persons living with dementia in decision-making about their daily lives and the care they receive.  They must be viewed as partners with those who care for them — either informal or formal.

The very words we use to describe provision of care hinder our thinking.  Terms like “caregiver” and “care receiver” denote a one-sided relationship in which the “giver” only “gives” and receives nothing in return.  Likewise, the “receiver” is viewed as a passive participant in the care process.  This view of the care relationship does little to relieve the stress and burden of the “giver” while at the same time assigns a victim status to the “receiver.”  New language has been proposed that honors the true nature of the care relationship.  By using terms such as “care partner” “care partnership” and “care partner team”, we recognize the valuable contributions of all persons engaged in the care arrangement.  Because so many Americans will be engaged in care partnering in the coming years, our view of these relationships is vital to the well-being of our society.

Meaningful Roles for Elders

As many studies have demonstrated, the increased longevity of individuals has significant economic implications for our country — both on the personal and societal level.  In a phenomenon never encountered before, individuals can now find themselves spending almost a quarter of their lives in retirement.  Unfortunately, there are few meaningful roles for individuals after their careers end.  Typically, the skills, wisdom and knowledge held by these elders go largely unrecognized and underutilized.

Two roles in which elders may find themselves engaged in after retirement are volunteer work and care partnering.  And, in the case of the much referred to “Sandwich Generation”, the care of parents and spouses may begin prior to retirement.  Volunteer work and care partnering fill very important functions in our communities.  However, again, both of these roles are largely undervalued and underutilized in American society.   There is a lot of discussion about what is considered “successful” and/or “productive” aging.  By shifting our paradigms to recognize the value of volunteering and caregiving, we can add meaning to the lives of elders who may be struggling with ways to connect with their communities.  The challenge for those of us invested in elder care is to assist these individuals in finding “meaningful engagement” in their post-career years. This means that further study is required to help identify what those roles may be and how elders can contribute to the challenges ahead of us.

Intergenerational Programming/Opportunities

Another important way in which American society needs to reframe our thinking is in our attitudes toward both the young and the old.  Most often, the needs of elders are viewed as being separate from the needs of children.  We talk about funding for elders and children as though we must choose between one and the other.  This type of thinking prevents us from recognizing the many ways in which the needs of the old and the needs of the young are complimentary to each other.  Those engaged in intergenerational research have demonstrated that there is benefit to intergenerational educational opportunities (e.g. day cares and kindergartens housed within retirement communities.)  The social benefits of intergenerational programming for both elders children have also been documented.  We do not have to choose one over the other.  Elder care leaders need to explore ways to engage elders and young people in new roles that not only benefit each of these groups, but also benefit their communities and society as a whole.

New Conceptions of Housing

Another needed change in our thinking is related to our concept of “housing.”  Currently, elders are faced with limited options related to housing if they require support and/or assistance with activities of daily living (ADL’s) and/or instrumental activities of daily living (IADL’s).  Typically, they can utilize home and community-based services or enter a congregate living situation such as a skilled nursing home or assisted living.  The perceived choice is “stay home and pay for 24-hour services or go to a facility.”  Often, both of these choices are unacceptable to elders and their families and they try to “hold out” as long as possible before attempting to access these formal elder care services.

We need to broaden our definition of “housing” for elders.  There is work being done to expand housing choices for elders — both those who require physical assistance with ADL’s and IADL’s and those who simply require increased interaction and support in order to go about their daily lives.  The concept of “small houses” in place of large, institutional skilled nursing homes has gained attention and is currently being evaluated for its effectiveness and economic feasibility.  The idea of “co-housing” is also being explored in which elders choose to live with other elders in order to provide economic and social support to each other.

Other arrangements such as intentional communities in which individuals of varying ages choose to live in close proximity in order to support and assist one another are also being explored and studied.  An organization such as “A Place for Mom” could be at the forefront of assisting elders and their families in finding alternative living arrangements that work well for them and that fall outside the realm of the usual possibilities. 

How I Will Contribute To Addressing These Issues

After sixteen years in direct social work practice with elders and their families, I made the decision to return to school and pursue a PhD in social gerontology.  I have learned much from my interactions with elders at the individual and community level and now desire to become involved with research and study which will help guide America as we move toward this new and exciting phase in our history.  While I am interested in understanding the “why”, I am most interested in

determining “how” the information we learn from research can be applied to the everyday lives of elders and those invested in the elder care industry.  Those engaged in the daily work of providing elder care services are often limited by time and financial constraints that leave them little opportunity to consider innovations to practice.  I have been provided with a unique opportunity to combine practice knowledge with the latest information and “cutting edge” thinking in the field of gerontology.  Support from “A Place For Mom” will help me use my skills and experience to help our society address these pressing issues.

View other Senior Care Innovation Scholarship FinalistsDon’t hesitate to congratulate and vote for Jennifer in the comment form below if you think her essay is one of the most compelling of all the finalists. Keep in mind we are awarding 5 of the finalists with $1,000 which they can use toward their studies. 

Dana Larsen
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Dana Larsen
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