Carers and family members have been urged to stop focusing on elderly relatives’ limitations, losses and health issues as they get older, and rather build on what they can do to help them age gracefully.
A new study, published in the Social Science & Medicine journal, has claimed many people over the age of 85 prefer to manage their own health by focusing on the positive aspects of their lives, such as their grandkids, families, hobbies and contributions to their communities.
The researchers, from Auckland University, have urged family members, carers and health workers to now stop focusing on their relatives’ limitations and instead frame them as “challenges”.
The study, which stems from the landmark umbrella LiLACS NZ study which aims to find out what leads to ‘successful ageing’, focused on 20 New Zealanders over 85 years old. They included people living in urban and remote rural areas, with differing degrees of diagnosed health issues.
The researchers found many of them said they had good health, despite the team being aware of them actually having many diagnosed health issues.
“They did tell us about their illnesses but they were much more interested in talking about the good things going on in their lives – their families, grandchildren, hobbies, contributions to their communities; and how they overcome, or adapt to, challenges or losses,” study-lead associate professor Janine Wiles said.
She added: “The trouble is we focus what these seniors can’t do, when it would be more helpful to take a holistic approach that recognises and extends upon older people’s resourcefulness and strengths.”
Many of the people who took part were battling a number of issues, from health ailments through to giving up driving and often the loss of a spouse or friends.
However, while they acknowledged those things, the researchers found that they focused more on what they could do and how they could manage in their own lives, with Wiles adding: “There also may have been an element of playing down their suffering to meet society’s expectations to not be complainers.”
Co-researcher Professor Ngaire Kerse has now urged health professionals to stop just viewing this older generation as “care recipients”.
“We need to acknowledge the very active role they play in shaping their own health, wellbeing and lives, as well as the lives of their families and wider communities.”
Kerse insisted this study challenges stereotypes of this age group – especially those with illnesses – as being frail, passive or dependent.
“We need to reframe how we think about, and attend to, the often very serious health challenges people in advanced age experience. We need to start where they are. How can we build on their strengths to enable them to keep doing the things they want to do?” Kerse added.
The study determined that health professionals would improve older people’s lived more by focusing on the different ways people manage their own wellbeing, while trying to help keep them connected to the community, as well as building on their strengths and resources to enable resilience.
“We need to start having the same conversations around resilience in advanced age as we do for children and young adults,” Kerse said.
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