Bridging the Gap: Technology’s Role in Understanding Aging — Interview with Taylor Patskanick, MIT AgeLab, and Amanda Krisher, Engage with®

In the latest episode of “Engaging with Aging,” we bring together two pioneers at the forefront of redefining care for older adults through the lens of empathy and technology. Taylor Patskanick from MIT AgeLab introduces us to the Agnes suit, a breakthrough tool that simulates the physical effects of aging, offering insights into the daily challenges faced by older adults. This innovative approach encourages a deeper understanding and empathy among designers, engineers, and policymakers, inspiring them to create solutions that significantly improve the quality of life for older adults.

Meanwhile, Amanda Krisher of Engage with® shares her experience with a virtual training program designed to equip caregivers and professionals with crucial skills in empathy, respect, and effective communication. By using interactive online tools, the program aims to enhance the caregiving experience for both caregivers and older adults, emphasizing the importance of understanding and addressing their unique needs and perspectives.

The intersection of Taylor’s and Amanda’s work highlights the pivotal role of empathy in driving innovation and improvement in older adult care. Through both physical simulation and educational programs, they showcase how an empathetic approach can lead to more thoughtful, effective, and compassionate care solutions. Their collaborative insights underscore the idea that truly understanding the aging experience can spark meaningful changes in how we support and value our older population.

This episode invites you to explore how combining empathy with technology can transform the landscape of aging care, making it a must-watch for anyone interested in making a positive impact in the lives of older adults. Join us to learn more about these innovative strategies and how they are setting the stage for a future where aging is not just about living longer, but living better.

Read the Full Transcript

[00:00:43.750] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Hi and welcome to Engaging with Aging, and what promises to be an enlightening and inspiring roundtable discussion about the future of aging and older adult care. My name is Keri Boyer, Senior Editor of the Engaging with Aging monthly newsletter publication. And today, we are honored to have with us two very distinguished guests who are at the forefront of innovating and shaping the way that we better understand and care for our aging population. First, we have Taylor Patskanick, a Technical Associate at the MIT Age Lab, where she contributes to the ground-breaking work of understanding aging through technology and design. Taylor has been instrumental in the development and the dissemination of the Age, Gain, Now Empathy System. It’s a suit, better known as Agnes, a remarkable tool that simulates the physical challenges associated with aging. This suit allows for designers, engineers, and policymakers to physically step into the shoes of an older adult, fostering empathy and sparking innovation in products and services that enhance the lives of older adults. Also joining us today is Amanda Krisher, the Senior Director of the Engage with Skills Training Program, a national initiative of the Mental Health Association of Maryland.

[00:02:06.900] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
It’s a virtual online training program that champions the power of empathy, respect, and effective communication in older adult care. With over a decade of experience in social work and program management, Amanda brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to training caregivers. Her work focuses on equipping professionals with the soft skills necessary to provide compassionate and high-quality care to older adults. In today’s discussion, we’re going to explore their journeys, the innovative tools and the programs they’ve developed, and their vision for the future of aging and long term care. Taylor, I’m going to hand it over to you. Can you tell me a little bit about the MIT AgeLab and the Agnes suit?

[00:02:53.070] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Great. Thank you, Keri, and thank you so much for having us in today. It was a warm invitation, so I’m really pleased to be here with you both. Just to get us started here, the Age Lab is a multidisciplinary research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or better known as MIT. We’ve been around for about 20 some odd years. We were started really actually thinking about the older driver. Our director, Dr. Joseph Coughlin, was working with some of the OEMs, insurers in some of his early research and early work around how to have more productive conversations within families around when it’s time to transition away from driving and talk about driving retirement. I tell you that because I think it’s It helps center us. We are located in MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, and we still have a really huge team at the Age Lab who actually does work thinking about in-vehicle technology interaction, how people driving on the road, and things of that nature. However, I’m also coming to you today from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Group. We are a multidisciplinary group, really interested in understanding what the implications are of our ever-growing longevity, if you will, as a species, and what that means for how people make decisions, how businesses need to be thinking about their decision-making in their business markets, as well as how we can better innovate in our systems, in our technologies, and in our spaces to meet the needs of this new longevity and of an aging population.

[00:04:44.090] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Well, it’s wonderful to have you, Taylor. Amanda, can you share us a little bit about the Engage with Skills Training program?

[00:04:52.970] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
Sure. Thank you, Keri. The Engage with Skills Training program is a program designed to build empathy, respect, and effective communication skills in caregivers who are supporting older adults. We started with a focus in the long-term care industry, specifically skilled nursing, as well as assisted living, and we’re able to expand that reach a little bit more to organizations supporting older adults aging in the community. We really focus on making the training fun and interactive. We bring some some interesting technology. Our virtual training center is built on a gaming platform, so you have some of the fun associated with that. But really, the root of it is getting people to have an opportunity to learn and practice in real-time and really have a chance to engage not only with the live instructor, but also with each other is a way of gaining that empathy and understanding about older adults and what their needs and what their perspectives perspectives and expectations are.

[00:06:01.600] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Wonderful. Well, I’m so happy you could join us today as well. To kick things off, let’s get into our first topic for today’s discussion. I’d like to explore a little bit more about how empathy and innovation intersect within the world of older adult care. I think it’s essential to recognize the profound role that empathy plays in driving meaningful innovations in the field of aging and older care. Empathy or the ability to understand and share feelings of another serves as the cornerstone of creating solutions that genuinely resonate with the needs and the challenges faced by older adults. In this segment, I’d like to explore how empathy not only informs the development of technological tools and educational programs, but also underpins the transformative potential of these innovations and enhances the quality of life for our aging population. From the tactile experience of the Agne suit, developed at the MIT Age Lab, which offers, wearers a glimpse into the physical realities of Aging. To engage with skills training program, which cultivates the crucial soft skills among caregivers, empathy stands really at the intersection of technology and human-centric care. I’d like to ask both of you, can you share how the Agnes suit and the Engage with Skills Training program, respectively, serve as tools for fostering empathy in your fields?

[00:07:50.800] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
How do these tools transform practitioners’ perspectives on aging and older adult care? Definitely.

[00:07:57.320] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
As you have Offered already, Keri, Agnes as a tool is, as a surprise to most folks, relatively low tech off-the-shelf equipment, essentially, that people wear. With a tool like this, our goal, fundamentally, is to offer another form of learning for people. Oftentimes, designers of technologies, spaces, products, services of these things for an aging population don’t have the lived experiences of our family caregivers or of our older adults. A tool like Agnes gives folks an opportunity to experience the world and interact with their particular object of design as a version of their future selves. In that process, We are hoping that the tool first sparks a level of awareness about how, for example, this thing could be designed differently or better because the designer has the disciplinary background or know-how to implement the appropriate changes. We then hope the tool moves them from that awareness to an internalizing process, so actually experiencing firsthand the felt need or the, again, first-person experience that you simply can’t get from only talking with older adults, for example, as a part of your design process. Then we hope the tool then moves them to the development phase. So this idea of awareness, internalize, develop.

[00:09:52.260] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Can we then implement, based on our experiences in the Agnes suit, a change, or sometimes I call them a hack to actually improve the design of whatever the technology product or service is.

[00:10:09.210] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
From the training perspective, we do a lot of teaching in a model of learn and do. We give people a chance to wrap their heads around maybe a new concept. As they’re doing that, we also get them to think about, How would this experience feel for you if you were an older adult. And so once they’ve thought about what they would like as a person who’s aging, then it’s a lot easier for them to be able to bring that awareness to conversations that they’re having with the older adults that they’re working with. And one of the things that I love about our training is that it gives them that opportunity to practice those skills in real-time. So you’re not learning something, and then a week or two goes by, and then you’re faced with a situation where maybe this information could be helpful. But right away, we say, Okay, let’s imagine that this is what’s happening. We’re going to interact with this particular older adult who has this need. And now we’re going to use those same things that we just talked about to approach the situation differently. And I love when I hear people at the end of a training say, This got me to think about the experiences of our older adults that we’re working with in a very different way.

[00:11:25.700] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
That it’s not maybe that they’re trying to be difficult or challenging them with their behaviors, but that there was something that was missing. There was a need that was missing that they were able to uncover once they approach the situation with more empathy.

[00:11:41.950] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
I think it’s interesting how technology can allow us to bring in empathy in a way that it hasn’t or perhaps it wouldn’t be perceived. This is great. Taylor, for the Agnes Suit, as you mentioned, it provides a very unique unique physical insight into the aging process. How have you seen this firsthand experience influence the designers or engineers or others developing more accessible products and services for older adults?

[00:12:17.630] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
One of the things we’re thinking increasingly about right now is how you balance principles of universal design or ageless design with designing for the unique needs that perhaps an older user has. I would add also balancing that with personalized design. So design that’s in some way fluid and able to meet each of us where we are based on our own data and personalized experience that we’re hoping to get out of our interaction. I say that because that is currently the the high-level theme that we’re chewing on right now with Agnes as a tool. However, to give you a more concrete example of some of the adjustments that we’ve seen as a result of creating design sprints, for example, with the Agnes tool. I’ll tell you a brief story about some early work that we did with a tool with CVS Health, a US pharmaceutical company. We had their executive and some Agelab researchers, Sudap and Agnes, and go through a typical consumer journey through one of their middle-market stores. When we think about the process of somebody starting from when they quite literally enter the front of the store and go through experiences like making their way to the pharmacist counter in the back, selecting certain kinds of products or even checking out.

[00:14:00.640] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Agnes introduces a level of friction or frustration and even a little bit of fatigue over time when the user is playing with the tool. In this case, we are able to, again, create that design sprint, and our participants will say, You know what? This doesn’t need to be this difficult. Then we can implement changes, such as was the case in this project, to things like product placement, how the shelves are actually built. If you go into your grocery store today, you might see very long aisles with nowhere to get out. You have to walk from one end to the other or turn around right away. Instead, we were able to create in this project floating aisles that looked much shorter and were also less tall so that folks could reach for specialty products in a more accessible way, create new pathways of wayfinding for themselves through the store. Another example of a hack, so to speak, that we might make from this example of a project would have been around thinking about using color and material and contrast in the floor to help create, again, pathways that make it very simple for people to find the pharmacy counter in the back or to make their way to the checkout counter in the front, things like that.

[00:15:30.070] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Wow. I love the ageless design. I think that’s a really interesting way to paraphrase. I can’t say that I would have considered even factoring those in, but that’s what’s so unique about the suit is that you physically experience what it’s like to be an older adult. I think that would be a powerful experience for designers. As you said, disciplinary to experience it firsthand. Implementing the Engage with Skills Training program. How have you observed changes in care professionals approach to working with older adults after undergoing empathy, respect, and effective communication skills training?

[00:16:18.710] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
I think one of the examples that really sticks out to me is from some of our earlier work and having an opportunity to interview some of the staff members who had gone through the training and hearing them talk about just simple things that they were doing differently, acknowledging the person by knocking on the door before they walked into their room. It seemed like such a simple matter, but that was something that they realized may have been disrespectful to the person when they were just waltzing in and saying, Hey, we’re here to take care of X, Y, and Z. So little things started to come up in my conversations whether it was with the interview, interview is after the training was over or even in the evaluation after a class is complete, where people will say, I’m going to not only take this information and use it with the people that I’m working with, but this is going to be really helpful in my work and conversations with my mom or a grandmother that they’re helping to support. So I think there’s just a lot of small changes that happen when people are feeling more empathetic Those small changes can add up to what feels like a big shift.

[00:17:37.130] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
But that’s the beauty of training, is that the more we’re able to engage participants, the more people that we have in an organization that are completing the training, we see that shift. Even if somebody wasn’t a part of the training, somebody else who was will say, Hey, we learned this really interesting thing in training, and let me teach you about it, and let’s see if we can do this to address this situation in a different way based on what we learned in training. They were teaching each other even after the training, which was really amazing to hear.

[00:18:09.810] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
I think that’s where that intersect really, for me, is happening, is that this is both training in a way. Skills training is one thing, but wearing this suit and actually getting a chance to experience things firsthand is a training in and of itself. It’s a physical experience. I got to ask you, I want to pivot a little bit to the technology piece of it. I want to ask both of you, how do you see technology and interactive training complementing each other in shaping the future of long-term care?

[00:18:45.550] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
Well, so I’m actually going to… I’m going to talk about here my own experience with the Agnes suit and how that has impacted my ability to train. So I had an opportunity to put on the Agnes suit and try to interact with the world around me, and I immediately noticed several things as soon as I put it on. And just being able to recognize why it is that an older adult might not be moving as quickly. For a person who’s younger and able-bodied, then they’re like, Come on, I got 10 people to work with. We don’t have time for you to take 20 minutes to walk into the bathroom. But the reality is that that’s their experience, and we can’t rush that. Being able to say to training participants now, Listen, I’ve even had this experience of putting this dude on feeling literally like I’m in the shoes of an older adult, and here’s what that felt like, and here’s what that taught me. And so maybe they don’t have that direct experience, but what it does is it gets them to think about things differently and to be able to say, okay, a simple example.

[00:20:05.760] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
As soon as Taylor put the vest on me, I immediately hunched over. I have a grandmother who’s in her 80s who walks hunched over. I immediately was like, Oh, I understand now. It’s not just a matter of getting grandma to stand up straighter. Her physical body has changed, and this is her experience, and we need to be able to understand that and work through that on her level and make sure that her needs are being met. So that was an intersection of the Agnes Suit and the training is being able to have had that experience and share that with participants to help them, again, see the experience of an older adult in a different way.

[00:20:52.760] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
That’s wonderful. Taylor, did you have anything that you wanted to add to that?

[00:20:57.400] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
I think I would just say, again, with Agnes being a tool that’s grounded in this idea of experiential learning theory, like I think Amanda is referencing, with our goals in putting the suit on people, what’s remarkable about the suit is that it is relatively low tech. I think what’s interesting about this, thinking about this intersection of technology and training and learning and professional Ed, I education is how we’re always going to need a balance in the spectrum of high to low tech or high touch to low touch in our ability to continue to create good learning outcomes like empathy for professionals who are using these tools and taking these trainings. While Agnes 1.0, as it is right now, is on one hand very portable and doesn’t need a charger and I’m able to create experiences for folks like Amanda relatively quickly. There is certainly a possible future in which there’s another version of Agnes that offers greater customization to what someone may experience or is better able to measure also the kinds of impacts that we might be trying to stimulate.

[00:22:20.500] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
We’ve got to hear a little bit of that firsthand experience from Amanda. Is there any other ways that feedback from other users from the Agnes Suit has been incorporated into maybe ongoing research or development projects at the MITH lab?

[00:22:38.640] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Always. We are always tinkering with the tool as a tool and as a tool for learning. We’re also always thinking about how we can incorporate into our work. I would say as of lately, we’ve been using the suit with students at MIT more recently. Doing some thinking more about the tool in terms of its internal validity, if you will. How can we actually measure some of this impact, whether it’s thinking about psychological empathy, but also adjustments to someone’s gait or changing their heart rate or some of these more physiological measures as well. That is a roundabout way of answering your question in terms of how we’re using the suit right now, which has been more within an internal capacity. But yes, I anticipate that we’ll be doing some more applied work with some of our research sponsors in the spring as well.

[00:23:46.580] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
For you, Amanda, how has the virtual training environment of Engage with program been tailored to address specific needs or challenges faced by caregivers in the field?

[00:23:58.310] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
Our goal, when we very started was to make our training as user friendly as possible. Technology can obviously be a little intimidating to some people, and so we really wanted to come up with a product that was going to be user friendly. The organization that developed our virtual training center actually sent one of their developers to see a live in-person training and get a feel for how participants were interacting with the instructor, what activities we were doing so that we could use that knowledge to create this platform that was going to be user friendly. And so everything that happens in the training is controlled by the instructor. So once a person answers and they get themselves in there and situated, they don’t have to move their avatar from one place to another as they’re learning, but the whole group moves together. So their responsibility really is just being able to absorb that information and participate in the activity. So it might be clicking on an answer on the screen. It might It might be typing in a response, it might be playing a game, but there’s a lot of expectation that this should be user friendly across the board, whether you’re somebody who is a gamer outside of your daily work or a person who doesn’t really feel as comfortable with technology.

[00:25:20.580] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
We also have a technology assistant who’s available during every training, so that’s a person who can walk someone through any tech issues just in case they come up. But we, again, have tried really hard to keep things as user friendly as possible so that we don’t see too many issues for that person to deal with.

[00:25:38.260] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Let’s transition from that foundational role of empathy in older adult to our next topic. This is a really good segue into it because we’ve touched on the outer skirts of it already. That’s on how technology plays a role in training and education. In an where technological advancements are just rapidly transforming every aspect of our lives. The field of aging and older adult care is really no exception. Technology not only has the power to enhance the physical aspects of care, but it also plays a pivotal role in educating and training the workforce that supports our aging population. This is segment I really want to explore how innovative tools and digital platforms are reshaping the way that caregivers and professionals are trained, enhancing their skills to meet the very complex needs of our older adults with greater precision, and as we’ve talked about, empathy. From the immersive experience provided by the Agnes Suit, it simulates that aging process to the engage with program that uses the virtual environment for skills development. Technology is really at the forefront of revolutionizing education and training in older adult care. I wanted to just open with a question, how have technological advancements shaped the training and education of professionals within the older adult care industry?

[00:27:15.010] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Do you have any specific examples from your work that you could share or any insights that you could provide for that?

[00:27:23.610] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
I think technology has opened so many doors with regards to trading and education. If you think about traditional learning, sitting in a classroom, there’s a lot of benefits to that. You have that interaction, you can engage with people, but there’s also a lot of challenges with it, especially in an industry that’s supporting older adults. Pulling a full group of staff off the floor to come into a training can be extremely difficult because then you need to find people to cover those spots for them. It also can be a little It’s a little bit intimidating when you’re sitting in a room with your colleagues and you’re learning something new, and maybe you don’t necessarily know the right answer, and so you’re hesitant to put yourself out there. What technology does for us is it creates this safe space. So especially in a virtual world where everyone’s coming in as an avatar. Nobody’s on the screen, nobody sees who you are. When you’re responding to a question, it’s not tied to you. So it gives people an opportunity to let their guard down and say, You know what? Maybe in a classroom setting, person to person, face to face, I might not raise my hand or give a suggestion in this moment, but here I feel safe to be able to do that.

[00:28:39.260] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
It creates a new environment for learning. I think there’s also new and fun ways to learn. So gaming is huge. And finding ways to take common experiences that you maybe would role play in a face to face training, we can do that with a game, with a non-player character. And that, again, makes the experience more personal to that individual. So they’re not worried about what their colleagues are thinking if they say or do something that maybe didn’t work so well, but they’re giving that chance to really experience something from a different perspective. I think technology, it’s like the world is your oyster when it comes to technology. I think there’s so many different avenues that we can go down with technology, and I’m excited to continue to explore those as we expand our program.

[00:29:37.890] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
I think as we think about this intersection of global aging and greater presence of technology-enabled services in people’s lives, especially in education, we also have a new opportunity, if you will, to also understand also from the From providers’ perspectives who are providing services to older adults, how we’re going to be needing to increasingly meet the needs of an increasingly technology savvy, older age. We all, all of us on this call are aging, and we’re all going to be increasingly tech savvier than previous generations of older people. This is an awesome thing. There’s an endless possibility here to serve educational needs of an aging population better. I would also just add that we, of course, are thinking along the same lines as Amanda here at the Age Lab as well. We’re really interested in considering how technology is changing everything from how people get advice and implement that advice in their lives and change their behavior to thinking about groups of professionals who work with older people, for We do a lot of work with the financial services industry and thinking about retirement planning. How can new tools like AR or VR be used to help in those advice-giving interactions, such as between a financial advisor and their older client, or their younger client who is aging and needs to be planning for retirement?

[00:31:24.930] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
That’s a quick shout out to my colleague, Shanghung Li, who’s doing some of his doctoral work focused in that space as well.

[00:31:32.100] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
That’s incredible. That’s incredible. I hadn’t even considered that, to be honest, Taylor. Just a completely different industry. That’s fascinating that the Agnes Suit can provide so much insight into just a myriad of different use cases. That’s fascinating. Then how do you How do you envision the integration of such physical simulation tools in an educational setting to prepare future generations? I initially was going to say caregivers, but I feel like this could be expansive, especially because of how useful the Agnes suit is in, I guess it’s cross-industry. There’s so many use cases where that could be beneficial.

[00:32:29.920] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Yeah, it’s a great question and one that we are constantly also thinking about, because there’s definitely an opportunity here to tailor any given Agnes training, if you will, or training that utilizes Agnes to any particular discipline. I give talks all year round with Agnes to everybody, from medical students in medical school to people that work with older adults in a direct care capacity in a senior living community. Each of these professionals have different needs in terms of how they can apply their insights about empathy and interactions with Agnes to their work that they do. There’s always a need to think about how we can innovate in how we offer the training, but also in the benefits that we hope to deliver on.

[00:33:25.940] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Amanda, so as a follow-up to that, as it applies to engage with skills training program and how they utilize a virtual platform for teaching empathy, respect, and effective communication. What would you say has been the most significant benefits and challenges of using technology in this context?

[00:33:49.720] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
I think one of the biggest benefits is the fact that our virtual training can be accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection connected computer. So right now, there’s no need for any special technology. If a person can get on the internet and stream a video from a computer, they can join the training. And so that really makes it so much more accessible to people and really the ability to scale it, not just for one organization. So a lot of our projects right now are working with multiple organizations who are sending staff to a designated training session. And in that moment, you have people from home care, from adult day services, maybe from the local library system, from emergency management. You bring this whole group of people together who are all coming to you with the same task is supporting that older adult in the community. And no matter what their role is, they’re going to learn from each other as well as the instructor. And so I I love that technology gives us an opportunity to really bring together people who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have an opportunity to be together in a training and learn other perspectives as we’re talking about these crucial skills.

[00:35:15.940] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Having explored the transformative role of technology and training in education, I really want to pivot to our next topic, which is that interdisciplinary approaches to aging. Taylor hit all this a little bit earlier on. But the complexity of aging and the diverse needs of older adults demand a multifaceted approach that transcends traditional boundaries. It’s an area that inherently requires collaboration across a spectrum of disciplines, medicine, technology, design, sociology, and beyond, to really forge comprehensive and effective solutions. In this part of the discussion, let’s dive into how combining insights and expertise from various fields leads to innovative strategies and interventions in older adult care. Whether it’s the Agnes Suit, which, as I’ve said, is a physical embodiment of that interdisciplinary collaboration, or the engage with skills training that integrates psychology and communicative theories into practical training, the value of an interdisciplinary approach is really undeniable. I want to open and ask both of you, how do interdisciplinary approaches enhance the effectiveness of your respective programs in addressing the multifaceted aspects of aging? Can you share some examples where maybe some collaboration across different fields has led to innovative solutions? For your programs?

[00:37:01.510] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Yeah, I think you’ve framed it up perfectly for us, Keri, because aging doesn’t belong to any one particular discipline, and it’s why I love being in this space so much. I would say Agnes is the living example of a tool that was actually borne out of a need for more of a multidisciplinary conversation. The tool itself was brainstormed several years ago in a room in MIT full of of medical MD doctors, medical doctors, MDs, a nurse. We had a geriatric occupational therapist and physical therapist, as well as several engineers and computer scientists. It was each of these people who had, again, a different academic position, if you will, or training, were coming together as part of a project we were doing with then Daimler, which is now Mercedes, I believe, the car company, to get their team also on the same page about what it is that they had in common, which was the older driver. Not their business goals, or the KPIs or whatever, but the older driver. The actual impetus for coming up with a tool like Agnes came from this need to have the multidisciplinary team start talking the same language. It was through this tool for embodiment that we were actually able to start that conversation.

[00:38:36.040] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
I’m going to piggyback off of what Taylor said about getting people to talk the same language. When we do a training, whether it’s with a long term care center or a home and community based organization, we want everyone involved. I’ve had trainings where people will say, Oh, well, is it just for the direct care workers? Just the nurses or the CNAS or the GNA, the nursing assistance? They’re like, No, no, no, no, no, your dining, whether your housekeeping, whether you’re answering the phone, every single person is going to have that opportunity to interact with that older adult. Sometimes it’s the person that you least expect that that older adult is going to have the best connection with. And so if everyone is approaching that situation with the same set of skills, the same set of understanding, that’s where we’re going to see such a positive outcome for the older adult, because everyone is speaking the same language. So it really is exciting to have a training class that has multiple disciplines in it because they’re, again, going to bring a different perspective. Maybe dining is going to know something that the direct care staff does doesn’t know.

[00:40:00.740] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
When they share that information, guess what? Now that direct care staff member can have a more positive interaction because they’re aware of this piece of the older adult’s experience that really matters.

[00:40:12.740] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
I was just thinking, When you mentioned that the interdisciplinary was the impetus of the creation of this, just having everyone together, meeting of the minds, if you will, physiologists, engineers, designers in the creation of it, how does this multidisciplinary collaboration inform the ongoing research and development at the MITH lab, particularly in creating tools that simulate aging. Is that something that’s ongoing as you guys continue to develop the program and the suit?

[00:40:58.730] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
It is, and it’s absolutely crucial, and it will continue to be. I was talking earlier about working with some students here at MIT on this next iteration of Agnes and thinking about how we really measure the impact of the suit. My background is in public health and in social work. These were students I was working with in a human factors engineering class. They were from MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. We don’t speak the same language all on paper, hypothetically. While we’re both working in service to this tool and into thinking about how we would build out a larger research study around measuring the impact of this tool and what that’s going to require of us, we’re also having individual experiences that are changing our own understanding and our own learning of how we can relate to other kinds of disciplines. I guess in a way, cultivating our own empathy as a part of that. I had my own hangups about being involved in, again, an Aeroastro class. I’m like, This is totally out of my field. I have no idea what I’m going to be walking into or if I’m even going to be remotely prepared for the conversations that we’re going to be having.

[00:42:20.320] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
In turn, I learned a ton. I learned a couple of new theories that I wasn’t familiar with. I learned a lot about wearables randomly. We were doing a lot of testing with using wearables as a part of piloting some of the measures and some of the study protocol that we would put together. It’s a small example, but there is that internal experience as well that’s happening as a part of continuing to engage in that interdisciplinary fashion.

[00:42:53.290] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Amanda, I have a follow-up for you. Engage with empathizes, as we’ve stated, empathy, respect, effective communication. How do you incorporate insights from psychology, social work, and health care to develop and refine your training programs?

[00:43:13.240] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
The development of The Training was founded in the Mental Health Association of Maryland’s 20 plus year history of engaging in the older adult community. So the original concept content was developed through this 20 years of experience with multiple theories associated with it, as well as a medical perspective from a psychiatrist who was part of the development team. And then I bring the social work aspect to the training and education. So we’ve been really fortunate to have a core team building the curricula with a variety of backgrounds. We also have a nurse who is one of our trainers, and so she is able to incorporate more of the health care space. And it really has been fascinating to see how there are some similarities in the way that we think about training and education, and also some differences that have helped us create a more meaningful training experience. So I think we’re constantly on the the look out for the latest and the greatest research. We do an annual update to make sure that we’re keeping things current with our statistics just so that we’re really trying to stay one step ahead as much as we can with bringing in all of that information and incorporating it together.

[00:44:44.850] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Let’s delve a little bit into how aging is perceived and managed across different cultures and societies. I’m going to open the floor and ask the both of you, how do you see cultural perceptions of influencing the development and reception of initiatives like Agnesud or the Engage with Skills Training program? Now, how do these initiatives challenge or reinforce societal attitudes towards aging?

[00:45:16.380] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
We are completely upfront and honest about the fact that tools like Agnes are, to some degree, quite controversial. Some people believe that the tool reinforces stereotypes of age and of physical aging, whereas others, as we’ve discussed over the last little while, have other perspectives around using it as a tool for knowing and for learning, potentially. I think it’s important to note that, Agnes as a tool is certainly not what everyone’s going to feel like when they get a little older. It’s certainly not also always going to be used in terms of how we use it to represent a particular cumulative instantaneous effect. People truly experience the aging process over our entire lifetimes, and they develop ways of coping or overcompensating or of overcoming the challenges of as the age. I think that’s where it’s also really important to emphasize how We pair these tools with working with older adults directly, with interviews, with more ethnographic work that involves, again, meeting people where they are at in these different kinds of environments that maybe we’re, again, designing sprints or challenges on. I also want to note, too, that with a suit like Agnes, we also are not trying to aging is not synonymous with debilitating decline.

[00:47:03.760] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
There are also strengths and opportunities and really amazing things that people gain as they age. We’re also, again, in this pair of other methods It’s always working in concert with other ways of knowing with Agnes. We’re trying to pull that out, too. Using Agnes in an experience isn’t just a completely negative experience. It is about thinking about where there are opportunities for innovation as a part of the process.

[00:47:35.830] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
I’m really glad you raised that because that is a really important footnote that, I guess, can sometimes be lost in translation. When you’re physically trying this suit on, as Amanda had mentioned, putting the vest on made her slunch over. There’s these feelings that you have as you experience it. But that’s a really interesting interesting and important note to make on that. Amanda, same question. How do you see the cultural perceptions of aging influencing the development of engagement?

[00:48:14.990] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
One of the things that I want to point out that we cover in the training is this concept that aging is not a disease, that it’s not a bad thing. We literally start aging the minute that we’re born. And as Taylor said, it’s this cumulative process, and we adjust, and we adapt, and we make changes, and we get to whatever that looks like for us in our older age. Recently, I heard a statistic that five-year-olds today, our five-year-olds today, roughly 50 % of them are going to live to be 100 or more. So we already have this large population of older adults. We know that the generations coming up are going to be living even longer. And so we have to see a cultural shift in our perspectives on aging. We have to get people to think about what are those strengths that come with it? What are the joy and the experiences that an older adult can still share. There’s many cultures around the world that older adults are well respected and the leaders in the culture and We in America are like, We’re going to put you over here in a corner and you’ve done what you needed to do in your life.

[00:49:38.440] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
I think we’re missing some really great opportunities by not bringing those older adults to the table. When we’re talking about policy changes, when we’re talking about future technology related to aging, when we’re even talking about what is aging care going to look like in 40, 50, 60 years, those older adults have to be at the table. They have to be a part of the discussion, because until we’re actually physically in that moment, we are never going to understand truly what those needs are. And so we need to hear those perspectives. We need to start thinking about aging not as a bad thing, but as something to be celebrated and something to learn from, and giving people that opportunity to still feel like they’re contributing to the world around them.

[00:50:26.550] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
I couldn’t agree more with you, Amanda. I think that’s an excellent point We’re getting close to the end of time here with our discussion today. I’d like to invite both of you to share your final reflections on the future of aging and older adult care. Throughout this conversation today, we’ve traversed the landscape of innovation, empathy, a deep commitment to improving the lives of older adults. But as you know, the journey doesn’t end here. The field of aging and older adult care is ever evolving. It’s facing new challenges and embracing new opportunities within each passing day. Taylor, starting with you, could you share some of your thoughts on what you think the future holds for aging and older adult care?

[00:51:17.970] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Something I’m really proud of and something I’m really looking ahead to continuing to do work in is thinking about the fun in aging. This is an of all the work that we do at the MIT Age Lab. We have medicalized older age, and we are so much more interested in thinking about how we can make aging fun again. With that in mind, I’m really looking forward to thinking about how the Agnes tool can also be used to help enable us to do that.

[00:51:54.320] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Amanda, from your perspective, especially with the emphasis of empathy, effective communication, education and respect within the realm of training, what is your vision for the future of older adult care?

[00:52:07.150] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
Fabulous question, and I probably could talk for a really long time on that, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I think We’re at a fork in the road right here. We are at a place where people want to age differently. Our baby boomer generation, they want to be aging in place. They want to continue to be involved, and the generations coming up after that are going to be no different. I’m really excited to see where aging care goes from here because there are so many great opportunities through technology, through education, through training, to get people to think about aging in a more fun way. I smile to myself as Taylor was saying that because that’s one of the things that I think about, too. Aging can be fun, and there’s ways that we can incorporate that in what we’re doing and how we’re supporting older adults as they’re aging, and just recognizing that if we all can come from what I really wrap up as a lens of kindness and bringing this idea of meeting people where they are, if we all have those skills, if every single person who’s interacting with that older adult understands what it means to be respectful and be empathetic and effectively communicate with them, there is going to be an explosion of positivity in the older adult care space.

[00:53:39.790] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
And so my hope and goal is that every single person who’s touching the lives of an older adult can have empathy-based training so that we’re all speaking the same language and we’re all having those more positive, well-balanced interactions.

[00:53:55.590] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Finally, to the both of you, what call to action would you like to leave our audience with today? How can individuals, organizations, or even communities contribute to a future where aging is embraced with dignity, care, and respect? Then also, what What’s the best way for our audience to learn more about you and the programs you’re spearheading?

[00:54:19.680] – Taylor Patskanick [MIT AgeLab]
Yeah, I, shamelessly, will say that the Age Lab is first and foremost a research lab, and so we would love to meet you. We have a fabulous database on our website. We can be found at agelab. Mit. Edu. Folks can sign up for our research database to be contacted for future studies they may be eligible for. We have a fabulous monthly electronic newsletter that goes out, and that is also available to sign up for on our website. You can hear all about all the latest and greatest coming out of the lab via that as well.

[00:54:57.920] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
Awesome. Thank you, Taylor. What about you, Amanda?

[00:55:01.480] – Amanda Krisher [Engage with®]
My call to action would be share this information far and wide, shout it from the rooftop, get people more involved in the conversation, start thinking about aging in a different way, and That can start with yourself, that can start with your staff, that can start with your family. You can learn more about our Engage with Skills Training programs by visiting www.engagewith.org. Really hope that the tool tools and resources that we’ve made available can be helpful as well. We also have a monthly newsletter. So if you’re not receiving that yet, please sign up to get that in your inbox and just continue to be a champion for aging. That’s what we need in the world right now is people who are excited about it and want to support it and help make the process better.

[00:55:53.630] – Keri [Engaging with Aging]
So in closing, today’s dialog has underscored the complexity and urgency of addressing the needs of our aging population. It’s clear that collaboration, innovation, and empathy are key to forging a future where aging is not just about living longer, but living better. Let’s carry forward the insights and inspirations from today into our work, our communities, and our lives with a commitment to make a positive difference in the world of older adult care. So thank you, everyone, for a wonderful session. Stay safe, stay connected, and we look forward to welcoming you to our next roundtable discussion.

The Older Years Reimagined: Volunteering as a Pathway to Health and Happiness

In a society that often equates youth with vitality and contribution, a growing body of research is painting a different picture of the older years—one where aging not only brings wisdom but also an unexpected key to health and happiness: volunteering. Far from being merely a noble endeavor, volunteering emerges as a potent means to enhance one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being, particularly among the older adult population.

A pivotal new study published in the European Journal of Public Health underscores this connection, revealing the reciprocal benefits of volunteering on health and daily life functioning among middle-aged and older adults across 15 European countries. This research isn’t alone in its findings; similar studies from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine and reports by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in the United States corroborate these benefits, highlighting a global resonance in the health impacts of volunteering.

The Science of Giving Back

Imagine your neighbor, Mrs. Thompson, who, at 70, decides to volunteer at the local library. Twice a week, she helps children with their reading. It’s a simple act of giving back, but the benefits extend far beyond the library’s walls. Studies have revealed that engaging in volunteer work, like Mrs. Thompson’s reading sessions, does wonders for the health and happiness of older adults.

Latest research uncovers that activities such as volunteering are associated with significant health benefits for the elderly. For example, Mrs. Thompson’s weekly commitment to the library is not just a generous use of her time; it’s likely improving her emotional well-being, keeping daily life limitations at bay, and even reducing her risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health further supports these findings, highlighting that older adults who volunteer just two hours a week are at a significantly lower risk of premature death compared to their non-volunteering counterparts. They also enjoy better physical activity levels and overall well-being.

Think of volunteering as Mrs. Thompson does as an opportunity to stay active, both mentally and physically. It’s a chance to connect with others, learn new things, and find joy in helping. When she assists a child in reading, she’s not only contributing to that child’s future success; she’s invigorating her own life, staying engaged, and maintaining her health.

By intertwining real-world examples with data from these studies, the impact of volunteering becomes clear. It’s more than a moral or social responsibility; it’s a pathway to a healthier, more fulfilling life for older adults. Whether it’s at a library, a community garden, or a local school, volunteering offers a unique blend of benefits, contributing to physical health, mental sharpness, and emotional fulfillment.

So, for those considering how to enrich their lives or the lives of older adults in their care, the answer could be as simple as volunteering. Just like Mrs. Thompson, finding purpose and community connection through volunteering not only benefits those around them but significantly enhances their own quality of life.

A Two-way Street: Health Benefits and Barriers

Consider Mr. Lee, a retired school teacher who lives in a small community. Mr. Lee has always been active in his community, but after retirement, he found himself facing some health issues and feeling the pinch of a tighter budget. Despite his eagerness to contribute, these challenges threatened to sideline him from participating in volunteer activities he loves, such as tutoring children at the local community center.

This is where the concept of a “virtuous cycle” of volunteering comes into play, as described by research. Engaging in volunteer work, like Mr. Lee’s tutoring, isn’t just a way to give back. It also boosts his health—both mental and physical—creating a positive feedback loop. As Mr. Lee feels better from volunteering, he’s more motivated and physically capable of continuing his volunteer work, which in turn keeps contributing to his well-being.

However, the reality is that challenges such as chronic health issues or financial constraints can hinder participation in volunteer activities. This is where programs like the AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP program step in​​. These programs are designed to be inclusive, offering volunteer opportunities that are accessible to older adults regardless of their health status or financial situation. For instance, the AmeriCorps Seniors provides stipends to volunteers who need financial support, and it designs roles that are accommodating for those with physical limitations.

In Mr. Lee’s case, finding a volunteer role that aligns with his skills as a teacher, while also considering his physical and financial circumstances, allows him to continue making a meaningful contribution without compromising his health or financial security. This inclusive approach ensures that more people like Mr. Lee can participate in volunteer work, benefiting from the health improvements it brings and, in turn, contributing to a cycle of positive community impact and personal well-being.

By understanding these dynamics, we see the importance of creating and supporting volunteer opportunities that are accessible and accommodating to the diverse needs of older adults. This not only enriches their lives but also strengthens communities through the valuable contributions of experienced individuals. Programs like the AmeriCorps Seniors exemplify how with the right support, the barriers to volunteering can be overcome, allowing every individual to partake in the virtuous cycle of health benefits and community service.

Social Connectivity: An Antidote to Isolation

Beyond physical health, volunteering addresses a critical challenge of aging: social isolation. The CNCS study found that AmeriCorps volunteers report feeling less isolated and depressed, underscoring volunteering’s role in building social connections and community belonging. This sense of companionship and community is pivotal, as isolation can have profound adverse effects on health, comparable to high-risk behaviors like smoking.

Imagine Maria, a 68-year-old widow who recently retired. Since her husband passed away and her children moved to different states, she’s felt increasingly isolated, spending days without meaningful social interactions. Concerned about her well-being, her daughter encourages her to join a local volunteering group through the AmeriCorps program—a decision that transforms Maria’s life.

Studies have shown that volunteering significantly reduces feelings of isolation and depression among older adults like Maria​​. This isn’t just about keeping busy; it’s about the profound human need for connection and the role volunteering plays in fulfilling this need. By joining the AmeriCorps, Maria starts tutoring at a local school, where she forms bonds with students and staff, making her feel valued and part of a community again.

This connection to community and the decrease in feelings of loneliness are crucial. Research has shown that social isolation can have severe health impacts, being as detrimental as smoking in terms of increasing mortality risk​​​​. The AmeriCorps’ focus on creating opportunities that cater to the physical and financial situations of older adults ensures that more people like Maria can find a path back to social engagement, regardless of their circumstances.

Moreover, the positive feedback loop of volunteering benefits both the volunteer and their community. As Maria feels more connected and happier, she’s likely to continue volunteering, which keeps her engaged and healthy, while also contributing to the educational support of local children. This cycle exemplifies how tailored volunteer programs can address the critical challenge of social isolation among older adults, turning their later years into a time of growth, connection, and contribution.

Through Maria’s story, we see the power of volunteering to combat social isolation and support mental health in older adults. It highlights the importance of programs like the AmeriCorps that offer accessible and meaningful volunteer opportunities, demonstrating that everyone has something valuable to contribute, regardless of age or life stage.

Conclusion

Volunteering as the Key to Health, Happiness, and Community Connection

In reimagining the older years through the lens of volunteering, we uncover a profound truth: aging is a vibrant opportunity for growth, contribution, and fulfillment. The stories of Mrs. Thompson, Mr. Lee, and Maria illustrate that volunteering is not merely an act of giving but a key to unlocking health, happiness, and a sense of belonging. These narratives, backed by compelling research, highlight the mutual benefits of volunteering for both the individual and the community. It is clear that engaging in volunteer work enriches the lives of older adults, offering them a pathway to maintain physical health, mental acuity, and emotional well-being, while combating social isolation.

As we reflect on the insights from this exploration, it is evident that volunteering embodies a powerful antidote to the challenges of aging. It fosters a virtuous cycle of health and happiness, proving that in giving, we receive. Therefore, the call to action is clear: for individuals, especially those in their older years, to embrace volunteering as a means to enhance their quality of life; for communities and organizations to create more accessible and meaningful opportunities for engagement; and for policymakers to recognize and support the vital contributions of older adults through volunteerism.

In doing so, we not only enrich the lives of older adults but also strengthen the fabric of our society, making the older years not a period of decline but a time of active, meaningful participation. Let us then embrace this opportunity, transforming the narrative of aging into one of continuous contribution and connection, ensuring that our older years are fulfilling.

References

  • AmeriCorps. “Volunteering Helps Keep Seniors Healthy, New Study Suggests.” AmeriCorps, 2019, https://americorps.gov/newsroom/official-press-releases/volunteering-helps-keep-seniors-healthy-new-study-suggests . Accessed 24 Mar. 2024.
  • Dorota Weziak-Bialowolska, Regina Skiba, Piotr Bialowolski, Longitudinal reciprocal associations between volunteering, health and well-being: evidence for middle-aged and older adults in Europe, European Journal of Public Health, 2024;, ckae014, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckae014
  • Kim, E. S., PhD, Whillans, A. V., PhD, Lee, M. T., PhD, & Chen, Y., ScD (2020). Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 59(2), 176-186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2020.03.004

Bridging the Gap: The Bipartisan Effort to Transform Caregiver Training

In a significant move poised to revolutionize the landscape of caregiver education and workforce development, Congress is on the brink of passing legislation that could fundamentally alter how new workers are trained for the long-term care sector. The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act (H.R. 6585), heralded for its potential to democratize access to essential training, has garnered wide-ranging support, not least from LeadingAge, a prominent advocate for nonprofit and mission-driven aging services providers.

A Historic Crisis and a Beacon of Hope

The United States’ healthcare system, particularly the long-term care sector, is navigating through uncharted territories, exacerbated by the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. A crisis in the workforce has been looming, marked by a shortage of Direct Care Workers (DCWs) – a shortfall that has deepened in the pandemic’s wake. The legislation comes as a beacon of hope against this backdrop, promising to address the urgent need for skilled caregivers.

“The U.S. Healthcare system is navigating a new and unfamiliar landscape in the wake of the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE)… the demand for direct care workers is high and is only expected to increase as our population ages,” LeadingAge states in a compelling letter to Congress, underscoring the urgency of the situation.

With over 5,400 provider members serving millions of older adults, LeadingAge’s advocacy highlights a critical juncture: the demand for direct care workers is soaring, exacerbated by a demographic shift towards an aging population. Yet, barriers to accessing training programs have stifled potential growth in this workforce.

The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act: A Game-Changer

The act proposes to make short-term workforce training programs eligible for federal aid through the Pell Grant program. This marks a significant shift from the existing requirements, which have historically excluded many aspiring caregivers from accessing the financial support needed to pursue their education and enter the field.

Crucially, the legislation aims to lower the threshold for training program eligibility, making high-quality, short-term post-secondary education accessible to those with low incomes. This initiative not only opens pathways to fulfilling, family-sustaining careers in long-term care but also addresses the critical pipeline of care providers necessary to meet the needs of America’s aging population.

The Human Impact: Empowering Direct Care Workers

According to recent reports, more than 60% of DCWs are people of color, and the vast majority are women. Many enter the aging services field through short-term training programs. By making these programs more accessible, the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act stands to empower a significant segment of the workforce, providing them with the tools for economic sustainability and professional advancement, without the burden of insurmountable debt. LeadingAge’s letter to Congress reflects on this, emphasizing, “Lowering the required length of training required to access the Pell Grant will open a world of employment opportunities and financial empowerment to low-income Americans.”

Why It Matters: Navigating the Demographic Shift

As the United States stands on the cusp of a significant demographic shift, the implications for the long-term care sector and the demand for direct care workers become increasingly pressing. The population projections for the coming decades sketch a future where the aging population will nearly double, and the ripple effects on the healthcare system, particularly long-term care, will be profound.

The Surge in the Aging Population

According to the Direct Care Workers in the United States policy research released by PHI, from 2016 to 2060, the number of adults aged 65 and older is projected to balloon from 49.2 million to an astounding 94.7 million. Even more striking, the segment of the population aged 85 and older is expected to nearly triple, growing from 6.4 million to 19 million. This exponential growth is not just a statistic; it represents a fundamental transformation in the composition of our society, driving job growth in the direct care workforce to unprecedented levels.

The Caregiver Gap

In stark contrast to the burgeoning older adult population, the pool of adults aged 18 to 64 is anticipated to remain relatively static. The current caregiver ratio of 31 adults aged 18 to 64 for every one adult aged 85 and older is poised to shrink dramatically to just 12 to 1 by 2060. This narrowing gap underscores a looming challenge: a potential shortage of both paid and unpaid caregivers available to support the burgeoning needs of older adults.

A Diverse and Complex Care Landscape

Compounding these challenges, the demographic composition of the older adult population itself is evolving. By 2060, projections indicate that nearly half (45 percent) of older adults will be of color, up from 23 percent in 2016, and the proportion of older adults who are immigrants will rise from 14 percent to 23 percent. These shifts not only signal a more diverse aging population but also amplify the need for cultural and linguistic competency within the direct care workforce. Recognizing and valuing the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and barriers of care workers themselves will be crucial in meeting these changing needs.

The Rise of Chronic Conditions

Adding another layer of complexity, the prevalence of chronic conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, is increasing alongside the growth of the older adult population. Currently, about 1 in 9 individuals aged 65 and over are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. This number is set to more than double by 2060, elevating the demand for specialized direct care workers capable of supporting individuals with complex health needs.

The Urgent Call for Action

The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act is a timely response to these challenges. By expanding access to short-term workforce training programs, the act aims to equip a new generation of direct care workers with the skills necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly aging and diversifying population. This legislation is not just a policy initiative; it’s an essential step toward preparing our nation to provide compassionate, competent care to older adults, ensuring they receive the support they deserve in the years to come.

Looking Ahead: A Unified Call to Action

“On behalf of the 5400 mission-driven providers that work with older adults and their families to provide dignified quality care and services, I urge you to vote ‘yes’ on The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act,” urges Katie Smith Sloan, President & CEO of LeadingAge, in a heartfelt plea to Congress.

As the bill awaits further action in Congress, the long-term care community watches with bated breath. The promise of the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act is not just in the numbers but in the lives it stands to change: the caregivers who form the backbone of our healthcare system and the older adults they serve. In endorsing this act, Congress has the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a future where quality care is underpinned by accessible, comprehensive caregiver education.

Embracing Technology: Revolutionizing Dementia Care Through Patient Portals

In an era where healthcare increasingly intersects with technology, patient portals stand at the forefront of a significant transformation in managing dementia care. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has shed light on the pivotal role these digital platforms play in fostering an age-friendly health system for persons living with dementia and their care partners.

The Rise of Patient Portals in Dementia Care

Patient portals, secure online platforms that allow patients and their care partners to access health information and communicate with healthcare providers, are becoming indispensable in the landscape of dementia care. The study conducted by Gleason and colleagues underscores the portal’s utility in addressing the critical domains of medications, mentation, mobility, and what matters — collectively known as the 4Ms framework in age-friendly healthcare.

A striking revelation from the study is that a substantial portion of messages sent through these portals by older adults were actually composed by care partners, highlighting the integral role family members and caregivers play in the healthcare dialogue. The automation of care partner identification via natural language processing not only emphasizes the technological strides in healthcare but also marks a step forward in recognizing and validating the care partner’s role in the patient’s health journey.

Key Findings and Implications

The observational study revealed that 60% of messages contained content relevant to the 4Ms, with medications and what matters to the patient being the most frequently discussed topics. This data suggests patient portals are more than mere communication tools; they are lifelines that connect care partners to crucial health information and decision-making processes.

The effectiveness of patient portal messaging in dementia care is not just a matter of convenience but a testament to the evolving dynamics of patient-centered care. The study’s natural language processing model demonstrated an impressive AUC of 0.90 in identifying messages sent by nonpatient authors, indicating high accuracy in distinguishing care partner communications (Gleason et al., 2024).

Let’s simplify these findings with a real-world example to make it more relatable:

Imagine a scenario where Sarah, who is 75 years old and living with dementia, has a routine doctor’s appointment coming up. Instead of navigating the complexities of her patient portal herself, her daughter, Emily, takes on the task. Emily logs into Sarah’s patient portal and sends a message to the doctor, detailing her mother’s recent symptoms and asking for advice. This action is quite common, as the study reveals that many messages in patient portals, which are supposed to come from patients like Sarah, are actually written by care partners like Emily.

Now, here’s where technology comes into play. Using something called natural language processing—a type of artificial intelligence—healthcare systems can automatically detect when a message is likely sent by a care partner rather than the patient themselves. This is significant because it recognizes Emily’s crucial role in managing her mother’s healthcare. It’s not just about acknowledging that family members and caregivers often communicate on behalf of patients; it’s about officially integrating them into the healthcare conversation.

In simpler terms, think of natural language processing as a smart assistant that can tell whether Sarah or Emily is writing. When it understands Emily is the one sending messages about Sarah’s health, the healthcare providers can better appreciate the full picture of Sarah’s support system. This technology respects and values the input of family members like Emily, seeing them as key partners in the patient’s health journey.

So, for anyone caring for an older adult, this means the healthcare system is evolving not just to recognize but to support the vital role you play in your loved one’s health. Your efforts are becoming more visible and acknowledged, making the care process more collaborative and supportive.

Bridging Gaps and Fostering Inclusivity

While patient portals are transforming dementia care by offering a direct line to healthcare providers, several hurdles still stand in the way of their full potential. For instance, not everyone is equally comfortable or familiar with using digital tools. This “digital divide” means that some older adults and their caregivers might find it challenging to navigate these platforms, especially if they’re not tech-savvy. Additionally, some portals aren’t as user-friendly as they could be, making it hard for users to find the information they need or communicate effectively with healthcare providers.

Another significant issue is making sure these digital tools are accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical abilities or tech skills. This includes designing patient portals that are easy to read, navigate, and use for people with varying levels of physical ability and technological literacy.

But it’s not all about overcoming barriers. The real power of patient portals lies in their ability to bring caregivers’ insights and the personal health goals of the patients into the spotlight. Imagine a scenario where a care partner can easily share updates about their loved one’s condition, set reminders for medication, or schedule appointments—all aligned with what the patient values most in their care. This could mean ensuring a patient who loves gardening can maintain mobility to continue enjoying this hobby, or making sure someone who values family time can manage their medications in a way that doesn’t interfere with these moments.

As we tackle these challenges, patient portals stand as a symbol of hope. They promise a future where healthcare is not just about treating symptoms but about crafting a care experience that respects and incorporates the individual needs and preferences of older adults and their caregivers. This vision for a more inclusive, responsive, and personalized healthcare system is not only achievable but essential as we move forward in our journey to support those navigating the complexities of aging and dementia.

Looking Ahead

The conversation around patient portals in dementia care is only beginning. As technology evolves, so too will the ways in which we engage with it to improve health outcomes for older adults. The intersection of healthcare, technology, and caregiver involvement holds the key to unlocking a future where dementia care is not just about managing symptoms but about enhancing the quality of life for patients and their families.

In closing, the journey towards an age-friendly health system is a collaborative endeavor. By leveraging technology like patient portals, we can create a more connected, informed, and compassionate healthcare ecosystem that truly meets the needs of people living with dementia and those who care for them.

References:

Gleason, K. T., Powell, D., DeGennaro, A. P., et al. (2024). Patient portal messages to support an age‐friendly health system for persons with dementia. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Link to article

The Economic and Health Toll of Ageism on Older Adults: Research Points to Ageism Costing the US $63 Billion Annually

In our society, the rising population of older adults brings to light the critical issue of ageism—not only as a prevalent form of discrimination but also as a significant contributor to economic and health dilemmas. Groundbreaking research has begun to quantify the profound effects of ageism, revealing a staggering economic burden alongside severe health consequences for older adults.

A seminal study published in The Gerontologist emphasizes the substantial economic costs and the exacerbation of health conditions due to ageism in the United States. It reports a jaw-dropping $63 billion annual cost attributed to ageism, affecting eight major health conditions among individuals aged 60 and older. This figure represents about 15.4% of the total expenditure on these conditions, underlining ageism’s hefty toll on the healthcare system.

The research categorizes ageism into three predictors: age discrimination (detrimental treatment based on age), negative age stereotypes (negative beliefs about older individuals), and negative self-perceptions of aging (older persons’ adverse beliefs about their own aging process). The interaction of these factors not only inflates healthcare costs significantly but also leads to an estimated 17.04 million cases of health conditions directly attributable to ageist attitudes.

Figure 1 Health care costs of age discrimination, negative age stereotypes,
and negative self-perceptions of aging in 1 year

Let’s illustrate the impact of ageism with the story of Michael a 65-year-old who, after being laid off due to company “restructuring,” struggled to find new employment. Encounters with subtle age discrimination during job interviews, where younger interviewers doubted her tech-savviness and ability to adapt, led Michael to internalize these ageist stereotypes, affecting her mental and physical health. This narrative is not uncommon and showcases the interplay of external discrimination and internalized ageism, culminating in adverse health outcomes.

Moreover, the study sheds light on the direct linkage between ageist perceptions and various health conditions. For example, older adults facing discrimination or harboring negative self-views about aging are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and musculoskeletal disorders, among others. This link underscores the physiological toll that psychological and social factors of ageism can exact on individuals.

Table 1 Based on population of Americans aged 60 or older in 2013.

It is crucial to highlight that the implications of ageism extend beyond individual experiences to broader societal losses. Economic ramifications are palpable in diminished productivity, increased healthcare spending, and lost opportunities for growth. The study calls for a concerted effort to combat ageism, suggesting that even a 10% reduction in ageist attitudes could prevent 1.7 million cases of health conditions among older adults.

The narrative of Clara, an 80-year-old who joined a community program challenging age stereotypes through intergenerational activities, exemplifies successful intervention. By sharing her extensive knowledge and life experiences, Clara not only contributed to the community’s enrichment but also improved her self-perception of aging, leading to better health outcomes.

This comprehensive study not only quantifies the cost of ageism in stark economic and health terms but also calls for a shift in societal attitudes towards older adults. By fostering an environment of respect, inclusion, and opportunity for all ages, we can mitigate the detrimental impacts of ageism, benefiting both individuals and society at large. As we advance, let us remember the invaluable contributions of older adults and work towards dismantling the barriers of ageism, paving the way for a healthier, more inclusive future.

Reference:

Levy, Becca R et al. “Ageism Amplifies Cost and Prevalence of Health Conditions.” The Gerontologist vol. 60,1 (2020): 174-181. doi:10.1093/geront/gny131