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2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist Vania Leung

Tina Gunn
By Tina GunnMay 1, 2014
2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist Vania Leung

A Place for Mom is proud to announce the finalists of our annual $1,000 scholarship for advancement in the field of gerontology. The finalists will be narrowed down to five winners to be awarded with a financial donation. Applicants were required to write a compelling essay about senior care innovation in preparing for America’s “Silver Tsunami” of aging Baby Boomers.

2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist Vania Leung

Congratulations to Vania Leung, 2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship Finalist! Read essay below and comment with why you feel she deserves to be one of the five scholarship award recipients.

Vania’s Essay

Ikegai. The centenarians in Okinawa share the secret to their success at longevity is that ikegai is something to wake up to everyday; something that roots everyone to stay on this earth. It is a sense of purpose to stay in this world to continue contributing to society. In one of the few blue zones of the world, Okinawa, the revered centenarians still have an obligation to help maintain the household and care for younger generations. This heavily contrasts our elderly who face challenges of agism, loss of identity, declining health, and physical/mental limitations including Alzheimer’s disease. With an increasing number of Baby Boomers, the overarching mission that the senior care industry should focus on is defining a new ikegai for them.

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In our society today, there seems to be a dread and fear of growing old compounded with stereotypical discrimination culminating in “agism.” “My body isn’t as young as it used to be and is falling apart” or “I’m not as good looking as I once was” are common statements I hear from older adults. We need to find a new “norm” for the way our society views the elderly. This negativity regarding aging is not just perpetuated by the older population, but by young people as well. I still recall being on the wards and calling one of my teenage patients to come talk to one of our older attendings, and she begged me, “do I HAVE TO talk to that old guy?”

Our culture in this modern world has grown to revere youth so much so that it has become an obsession. Botox is prevalent to hide wrinkles. Anti-aging cream and antioxidants to “battle” aging are widespread. Covers of magazines are plastered with images of young celebrities and models. The senior care industry must reset the mindset, and refocus the culture to revere and respect the elderly, through featuring older adults in more ads allowing people to embrace aging. If young adults are encouraged to volunteer more in senior centers and nursing homes, this exposure will help everyone understand our seniors better. Public service announcements can be broadcasted to raise awareness and bring positivity about the process of aging. By doing so, it will slowly shed the negativity associated with seniors.

The greatest challenge our society has in addition to changing perceptions of the elderly is helping them rediscover their sense of belonging, ikegai. We look around us and see that almost everyone has a place to be everyday. Most children recognize their duty to go to school; young adults have an obligation to a career. While those a bit older might shift their focus to family or other ambitions in life. Yet, ironically, we tell our seniors to “retire,” or in other words, to stop working, and find activities to preoccupy the day. A lot of patients come into the doctor’s office with somatic complaints of feeling tired or loss of interests, when, really, the diagnosis they should carry most of the time is “loneliness”. After years and years of working and contributing to society, it is hard to imagine flipping the switch and being deprived of any further goals in life. Some have dealt with it by refocusing their attention on their grandchildren and participating in community activities, but of the numerous patients I’ve seen, those patients were few and far between.

Promoting seniors to still contribute to the workforce can give them a feeling of belonging by investing in sites like retirementjobs.com, or encouraging employers to set aside jobs for the elderly. Many elderly are faced with mobility barriers, but that can be overcome with technology now. As demonstrated by projects from TED talk, “School in the Cloud,” aka “Granny Cloud,” it promotes older adults to teach lessons to underprivileged children across the world using free video chatting software, Skype. Organizations should be created that can help insert our seniors back into society, rather than removing them from it.

Asides from avoiding isolation of our seniors, one of the Okinawanians’ secret to longevity is their robust health allowing them to be productive to the very end of their lives. Yet, in our country, the leading causes of mortality in our seniors include heart diseases and respiratory diseases. We need to start improving healthcare for our aging Baby Boomers. Providing interactive workshops on topics regarding age-related diseases including osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes, healthy eating, fall prevention can help the elderly prevent later complications. Some hospitals have already started forming health education “clubs” for older adults to attend, but more neighborhood groups should be formed for them to mingle and exercise.

Additionally, having completed a significant portion of my medical training, I have realized that there is a dearth in geriatric medicine. Had I not decided to pursue my own personal interest in geriatric medicine, I would not have learned about the importance of polypharmacy, elder abuse, mobility/transportation issues, housing problems that our seniors face. If 25% of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2050, I think it would be important for all students entering any healthcare field to be trained to properly care for these patients. Curriculums need to be modified to focus more on this aging population.

Lastly, an innovative approach is exemplified by Hogeway Dementia Village . These senior villages are created to simulate a neighborhood that their residents may have lived in. The village is equipped with typical neighborhood establishments (e.g. grocery store) with caretakers in disguise as everyday personnel. Although many of their residents have already been diagnosed with dementia, they are allowed to carry on with daily activities including assisting with preparing for meals. This approach allows for not just a more humane approach, but avoids healthcare related costs associated with inadequate care (pressure ulcers just as an example). And like everyone else, it still retains the sense of an ikegai for this population.

For over 12 years since my days in high school, I have volunteered extensively and engaged directly with seniors from all walks of life — nursing home, homeless shelter, and community health clinics. I have also participated in research directly influencing the elderly, initially working on a project looking to integrate modern technology into seniors’ everyday lives with the Kerr lab at University of California, San Diego. Now, I am continuing research endeavors with the Goldman Lab at Rush University exploring cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease. As I finish up my final years in medical school, I hope to enter an internal medicine residency followed by a geriatrics fellowship. I envision creating a practice where in addition to seeing patients in a normal clinical setting, I can eliminate healthcare barriers for homebound older patients by caring for them on a home health basis. A Place for Mom would greatly help me as I aim to continue providing age-sensitive care in my pursuit to become a geriatrician.

View and read all of the 2014 Senior Care Innovation Scholarship finalists and congratulate them on making it closer to the scholarship prize.

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Tina Gunn
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