Creating a golden age of aging

October 16, 2014

Helping society’s oldest members find happiness

Although more people are assuming the title of octogenarian, nonagenarian, or even centenarian, Dr. Irene Coulson, a faculty member with the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, wasn’t able to find much information about happiness when she reviewed the literature addressing the last years of adulthood—also known as the fourth age. “There’s very little written about people beyond the age of 80—particularly those living in nursing homes or continuing care centres.”

So Irene, who has worked in gerontology for the past 35 years, set out to take a closer look at eudemonia, or happiness, in people over 80.

“While there have been great strides in the last 50 years to make improvements in continuing care, much more work still needs to be done. There remains a negative image that nursing homes are places where it’s difficult to be happy because it’s not home,” she says. “So I wanted to find out what creates happiness in people over the age of 80 who are living in continuing care centres. Knowing exactly what makes people happy can help us define new policies, create education programs and shape practices and culture that promote happiness in a continuing care context.”

Taking advantage of expertise across the university

IMAGE_STORY_Eudemonia_researchTeaming up with four of her MacEwan University colleagues—Dr. Lori Harper with Psychology, Dr. Sharon Bratt with Computer Science, Shirley Galenza with the Centre for Professional Nursing Education and Dr. Mary Haase with Psychiatric Nursing—and in collaboration with Covenant Health, the research team designed a study that involved 30 residents and 41 direct care staff in continuing care centres.

Each resident was asked a set of questions related to happiness that centred on their ability to self-determine and be autonomous, have meaningful relationships with people inside and outside the continuing care centre and master and control their environments. All participants were over 80, had lived in a continuing care centre for over a year and were cognitively alert.

Using the answers to those questions, the researchers drafted and tested a series of propositions about what creates resident happiness.

Octogenarians and good samaritans

The researchers found that residents want to have their opinions heard and respected, but worry about “rocking the boat.” Residents would also like to have a voice in decisions about their health care and wellbeing.

“Residents told us that they didn’t have long-term goals – dying was not an unexpected outcome – but I didn’t realize how strongly they felt about continuing to contribute to society,” says Irene. “They felt purpose and value for things they did for their fellow residents on the unit—putting a blanket on someone down the hall or being a good samaritan in some way.”

Using their research findings, Irene says, it’s possible to create collaborative educational strategies for staff around the importance of creating purpose and socially engaging residents as part of the day-to-day care.

Other noteworthy findings included the need to have resources in place to help residents resolve past conflict. “Residents reminisce a lot when they’re over 80,” explains Irene. “When there are unresolved issues, continuing care centres can develop strategies to help residents resolve these issues and move on to creating meaning and purpose in their lives—creating a life that is worth living.”

Family and friends make life worth living

Relationships were another key component of happiness, so Irene says that finding ways to maintain the residents’ positive relationships with their family and friends is critical. “We suggested that there should be more technology available so that residents can connect with friends and family in other places,” says Irene. “Having an iPad and staff available who are trained to help residents talk to their daughter or son in another province using Skype or FaceTime could be really helpful.”

In addition to their findings and recommendations, the researchers also created a model to help bring the results of their research into the hands of managers, clinicians, staff and residents in other continuing care centres. “Organizations can use this model and the propositions to examine their policies, conduct staff focus groups and resident interviews,” explains Irene. “In doing so, they can also find ways to use their energy and resources to create continuing care environments that promote happiness for their oldest residents.”

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