Getting older is part of life and not well understood by those not yet in the midst of it. Gerontologists, retirement planners and healthcare professionals tell us that it is important to plan ahead to age well. One step in the right direction is to understand more about the aging process and its possible impacts on us.
The current generation of older adults with a developmental disability is the first to look forward to living into old age. This has important learning implications for caregivers and for people with a developmental disability. Some aspects of aging and developmental disabilities are summarized below.
Longer Life Expectancy
In the past, the life expectancy of people with a developmental disability was shorter than the general population. Today, with improvements in quality of life, more community resources and advances in medical knowledge, people with a developmental disability can also look forward to older adulthood.
The Aging Boom
Longer life expectancy for people with developmental disabilities comes at a time when the Baby Boom Generation is entering the senior years. The earliest baby boomers, born in 1945 following WW II, are now in their 60’s. There will be increasing pressure on our social and health programs to adjust to the phenomenon of the Aging Boom.
Services for People with a Developmental Disability
Developmental service providers are witnessing the effects of aging on many of the people they serve and on aging family caregivers. Developmental service workers have not traditionally been trained in the aging process and do not have a lot of experience supporting older adults with a developmental disability. The system of services for people with a developmental disability faces significant new pressure as a result of the longer life expectancy of people being supported, the aging of family caregivers and the Aging Boom.
The Long Term Care System – Services for Older Adults
The system of services for older adults includes a range of health, social, recreation, home support and residential services. The people working in this system are educated in their respective disciplines and are generally knowledgeable about aging. However, they do not usually have any training in developmental disabilities. As older adults with developmental disabilities access these services, providers are being pressed to become knowledgeable about their needs.
Legislation and Regulation
Long term care and developmental service providers in some jurisdictions are sharing their respective knowledge and collaborating on innovative projects to support older adults with developmental disabilities. They are however, often constrained in their innovation due to the legislative and regulatory frameworks under which they must operate. Government ministries are beginning to examine existing regulations and develop protocols to enable greater flexibility so the two sectors can respond with efficient and effective strategies and programs.
Learning How to Age Well
Aging is a normal part of the life process but it does not happen automatically. It requires knowledge about the aging process and commitment to maintaining one’s quality of life. People with developmental disabilities will need guidance to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to age well. Caregivers need to learn about aging so they are able to provide informed support. Aging brings changes in the body, social roles, income, emotions and interests. These changes require that each person make adjustments to maintain the quality of his life as he grows older. There are four very important things to keep in mind as one ages.
- As We Grow Older We Become More Uniquely Ourselves
Aging does not change who we are. If we are physically active when we are young we will be physically active when we are old. If we enjoy making friends now we will still enjoy making friends as an older adult. Aging ripens who we are.
- Use It or Lose It
If we stop lifting weights we will experience a loss of muscle tone and strength, regardless of age. If we stop exercising our minds we will lose some of our capacity to remember and to learn, regardless of how old we are. If we continue to use and develop our mental and physical abilities as we age we will remain mentally agile and physically fit.
- Plan for the Transition
We hope we will get older. It will bring change beyond our control and offer opportunity to make changes within our control. If we learn about the aging process and plan ahead for how we will enjoy getting older, we can make the transition with much more ease. If we are involved in supporting a person with a developmental disability who is approaching older adulthood, then we owe it to him/her and to the support circle to learn about aging.
- Maintain Social Relationships
The most common factor that leads to a person requiring placement in a long term care home is a lack of social relationships and the isolation that comes with it. People who remain involved with other people maintain their independence in older adulthood.
We learn early in life to make distinctions based on age. Age is a useful variable. It provides us with a tool to organize society and to govern access to certain privileges. Age defines when we may drive a car, vote and attend movies on our own. Age is used to group young people into categories to ensure fairness of competition in baseball, soccer and hockey. Civil society uses age as a means to structure rites of passage such as beginning school, retiring from employment and joining seniors’ organizations. Birthdays are a means to celebrate another year in a person’s life. Age is used to group people into generations with certain common characteristics such as the depression generation (those who were children during the Great Depression of the 1930’s) and the baby boomers (those born between the end of WW II and 1965).
Age can also be misunderstood and misused. Sometimes these misunderstandings are funny, such as when a 5 year old calls his 29 year old father an old man. There are other misunderstandings of aging that can be damaging to individual older adults and to society generally. When age is used to limit rights, to insult or to group people based on myths rather than reality, ageism is at work.
Examples of ageism based on myth are illustrated in these statements: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” “Older workers are slow and less productive.” “Old people are a drain in society.” The truth is different than these commonly used statements lead us to believe.
Older Adults and Learning
The fact is that older adults are pursuing education in growing numbers. Many colleges, universities and elderly person’s centres have educational programs geared to the learning needs of older adults. Online educational opportunities for seniors are also becoming more popular. Older adults can learn and want to learn.
Older Workers and Productivity
The age of an employee has no effect on the person’s performance. Studies conducted to assess the performance of older workers found that older employees demonstrate acceptable productivity and have attendance records equal to or better than other age groups. Employers themselves, also report that older workers are dependable and meet productivity requirements. Generally, older employees perform as well as or better than younger employees. Qualifications, experience, work attitudes and interests are more useful criteria in hiring decisions than age.
Old People are a Drain on Society
The facts show that:
- 69% of seniors provide some form of help to the people in their lives—their spouse, children, grandchildren, friends and/or neighbours.
- 19% of seniors participate in formal volunteer work. Informally, about the same number also look after children at least once a week.
- 23% of seniors provide unpaid care to other seniors, thereby helping to reduce our health care costs.
- The economic value of seniors’ volunteer services is estimated at between $764 million and $2.3 billion annually.
- Seniors are the largest per capita donors to charity in the Canadian population.
- Collectively, seniors are a powerful consumer force. Their participation in the marketplace helps contribute to the stability of many Canadian businesses, especially in the service sector.
- Seniors make major contributions to our economy through the income, property and sales taxes they pay.
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