Living All the Way

By Sandy Simon  |

Why does there seem to be an increased fascination with the experience of growing older? I think it is safe to assume it is because the baby boomers have come of age. On January 1, 2011, the first baby boomers turned 65 years old. The US Census Bureau defines baby boomers as those born between January 1, 1946 and December 31, 1964. Everyday for the next 19 years, 10,000 people per day will celebrate their 65th birthday.

Perhaps you are a member of this group, which may explain why you have found yourself interested in reading this column, even though you might have passed by it just a few years ago. There are several generations of older people who are paving the way for baby boomers who are just beginning to experience the challenges associated with aging. Their experiences of aging are diverse. Often times, people who are older, find that the quality of their lives is subject to the newly developing limitations of their body and mind. With life expectancy in the United States at 79.4 years for women and 75.5 years for men, people are living longer. Our challenge is to maintain good quality of life as longevity increases.

As a geriatric care manager, I come across many wonderful older adults who have lived meaningful lives with purpose and direction. Unfortunately, as a result of age-related conditions, some find their world becoming smaller. Due to challenges with impaired eyesight, hearing, mobility, cognitive challenges, chronic pain or other medical conditions, they may become less engaged in purposeful activities. Before they realize it, they no longer recognize the person they’ve become nor do they feel meaningfully connected to the life they are living. This is sad on many levels. However, in his book, Age-ing to Sage-ing, Rabbi Zalman Schecter-Shalomi encourages us to think differently: “Aging doesn’t mean diminishment or exile from the ranks of the living. As the period in which we harvest the fruits of a lifetime’s labor, it gives us the panoramic vision from which spiritual wisdom flows.”

At a time when our elders could benefit from thoughtful, compassionate options to help maintain a precious connection to their own lives, they are often left frustrated and alienated by the possibilities available to them. Fortunately, there are programs being developed that are shifting the way we respond to the lifeline our elders desperately need and deserve.

A new program that focuses on meaningful engagement, specifically for people living with dementia, is the Learning for Life program developed by Hearthstone and it’s president, John Zeisel, PhD. I asked Dr. Zeisel to share the impetus and evolution of this groundbreaking new program:

“Learning for Life is a school for people with memory challenges specially developed to make such challenges irrelevant. Learning for Life is the start of a revolution in dementia care—a movement that will return people with memory challenges to their place in society—with the rights and opportunities they deserve.

One of the commonly held beliefs people have about those living with memory challenges—Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), Alzheimer’s and other dementias—is that people living with these conditions are no longer able to learn. This is just wrong and the first Learning for Life Academy—now welcoming students at The Groves a 62+ Senior Living Community in Lincoln, is proving it. People learn in different ways and the brain’s procedural memory and learning systems remain fully functional in this population. That’s why Learning for Life works.

I knew that this program would benefit everyone with memory challenges living at home or in an Assisted Living Residence who misses social contact, meaningful discussion and the joy of learning. Instead of keeping these people safe with continuous caregiver supervision and secure perimeters, why not, I asked, keep them safe by giving them something to care about that keeps them interested and engaged—learning?

Learning for Life was conceived when three things came together: I published I’m Still Here (Penguin, 2006), my book about how people with dementia are very much present throughout their lives and their voyage with dementia; I learned that Maria Montessori’s original subjects for her Montessori Teaching Methods were children with learning difficulties and that these approaches are well suited to helping people with dementia learn new things; and drawing on my background in Environment-Behavior (E-B) studies, I recalled how the physical design of the learning environment can have a truly positive impact on students’ ability to learn.

Learning for Life is a student-driven program where the Director of Learning regularly asks students what is of interest to them and then creates the tools for them to explore those subjects, including architecture, law enforcement, being blind, the history of New England and space travel—among others. The Learning for Life day includes social contact, study, cognitive stimulation, exercise, healthy meals—all the things that research has shown to improve memory and ward off memory loss. Learning for Life principles and practices reinforce decision-making and a sense of time—the past and future—in the lives of students. Experts now agree that brain vitality, including all these elements, is central to maintaining brain health. Learning for Life is based on all these principles.” John Zeisel PhD.

Sandy Simon is the Director of Senior Support Solutions, a Geriatric Care Management company based in Lexington. Sandy and her team of certified geriatric care managers, Rachel Kushner and Carolyn Shea, provide assessment and care planning for older adults. Their mission is to assist older adults and their caregivers with the changing needs associated with aging in order to promote a safe, dignified and purposeful aging experience.

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