Aging with Grace

Just a generation or two ago, there wasn’t usually much emphasis placed on personal development after a certain age. If all went well, people retired, enjoyed their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and when they could no longer care for themselves they moved into a nursing home to quietly live out the remainder of their days. But today, now that Americans are living longer and enjoying greater physical health, that perception of aging is outdated.

One notable advancement is a marked cultural shift toward empowering seniors. “When I first started in this field thirty-four years ago, it was much more of a maternalistic, ‘you’re sick now; come to us and we’ll care for you’ attitude,” says Mary Ann Drescher, president of Attic Angel Community, a multifaceted continuing care community that offers independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, rehabilitation and memory care. “Now we say aging is just a normal part of life and there is still so much you can do, and how can we support you in doing those things.”

A key component is addressing the whole person—spiritually, creatively, intellectually—rather than simply focusing on his or her physical needs. Of course the physical is crucial, and Attic Angel covers this with a skilled nursing team, hospital and clinic transportation, and exercise programs. In addition, they offer a wide range of continuing education classes, address spiritual practices through ecumenical and denominational services and foster creativity with an on-site art studio, where residents work with fused glass, pottery, jewelry and more, either continuing lifelong pursuits or discovering skills and outlets they never knew they possessed. There’s also a strong emphasis on community involvement through volunteer opportunities: 580 Madison-area residents—including the Attic Angel residents themselves—provide 35,000 hours each year through the Attic Angel Association.

“You never lose the need to feel that you are of value,” says Drescher, “and that what you can do for another human being is very important.”

At Heritage Senior Living, a multifaceted aging community that offers independent, assisted living and memory care communities across nine Wisconsin locations, this focus on empowerment is clearly evident in the company’s five-point philosophy of care: independence, individuality, privacy, choice and dignity. The mission statement speaks for itself: “To provide the highest standard of care while cherishing and dignifying the knowledge, value and joy of our respective residents.”

“We want our residents to be as independent as they possibly can, yet have all the support they need,” says Betty Fischer of Heritage Senior Living. “Respect, dignity, privacy—we just want to make sure that everything is their choice, involves their decision-making process and contributes to their self-worth.”

Fischer acknowledges that transitioning to an aging community can be a difficult and complex process. She encourages individuals and their families to tour several prospective communities, particularly if they have an outdated perception of skilled nursing facilities. “Sometimes even walking in, you pick up on the ambiance and the culture within,” says Fischer.

Perhaps it’s a practice as simple as always knocking before entering a resident’s space, or the use of silent pagers so that when residents need assistance their privacy remains intact. At Heritage Monona, the memory care neighborhood is designed around an enclosed courtyard so that residents can stroll in and out freely (without feeling as though they are “fenced in”), and families can have peace of mind knowing their safety is preserved.

It all boils down to one clear goal: “We don’t want to take anything away when they come here,” says Fischer. “We want to add to their quality of life.”

One of the most unavoidable transitions as we age is facing our own mortality, and hospice care is also an area rife with misperceptions and ripe for empowerment. Hospice can be a very valuable tool for enriching quality of life, even as we prepare for death.

“I believe death is the number one taboo subject among all ages, but specifically amongst the aging population,” says Tom Moreland, CEO of St. Jude Hospice. “But it’s something we’re all going to have to face, and we as a society really need to start talking about it.”

Perhaps one of the most useful tools informally and formally provided by many hospice organizations is a focus on end-of-life planning—taking a good hard look at end-of-life wishes, making practical arrangements and getting legal documents put into place.

“Even if you have a spouse you think knows exactly what you want, when they’re in the midst of crisis they may not be able to act on what your true wishes were,” says Moreland.

Do you want extraordinary measures taken? Do you have a living will and a power of attorney? Have you spoken with an attorney about estate planning, tax issues and anything else that might burden your family after you are gone? Maybe you’d like a hand in planning your own memorial service or how it will be funded. Moreland points to free online tools such as those found at AgingWithDignity.org, a national nonprofit that helps foster these tough conversations and puts legal wishes in place.

“It’s never too soon to start end-of-life planning,” says Moreland. “It’s a hard thing to talk about but once you do, it’s actually a relief.”

- Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz

SPECIAL FOCUS: EYE HEALTH AS WE AGE

Several eye diseases become prevalent as we age, all of them potentially leading to blindness, and most of them treatable or reversible if caught early enough. The four main offenders are cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, according to Dr. Nicole Anderson-Weiss of Anderson & Shapiro Eyecare. She recommends annual eye exams for everyone over the age of sixty, whether you are experiencing symptoms or not.

“Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness, but its resulting blindness can be preventable,” says Anderson-Weiss. “The problem is, pressure can build slowly in the eye for years and unless a doctor sees it, you probably won’t know you have it.” There is no cure for glaucoma, but it’s treatable with eyedrops, lasers and surgery.

Cataracts—the leading cause of blindness worldwide—is entirely treatable. Symptoms include blurred or double vision, issues with color perception and problems with glare, halos, or star-bursting while driving at night. The good news: “The surgery is just amazingly advanced now,” says Anderson-Weiss, noting that it requires no needles, no stitches and no patches. “Something that years ago could take up to an hour now can take ten minutes or less, and what was months of recovery is now just a few days. Patients can even be free of glasses after cataract surgery.”

Macular degeneration affects the part of the eye and retina responsible for central vision. There are two different types, wet and dry, and they each progress at different rates. Ninety percent of people with macular degeneration present with the dry type, and at this stage vitamins may slow the progression. Wet macular degeneration, affecting the remainder of patients, progresses more quickly but can be treated with injections if caught early.

Diabetic retinopathy, in which affected blood vessels in the eye cause vision loss, is easily caught with an annual eye exam. It can be treated with blood sugar control and, if necessary, laser surgery.

“Blindness is always something people are afraid of as they age,” says Anderson-Weiss, “but so much of it is preventable. See your doctor—the earlier the better.”

- MGS

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