Ensuring that Seniors Age with Dignity – the Ongoing Challenge

By Melissa Powell, COO of Genesis HealthCare

As Americans live longer, it is essential for senior citizens to preserve their personal dignity as they age, despite coping with concerns like chronic illness and dementia. As geriatrician William Thomas remarked in Harvard Magazine, “As a society, we have failed to understand that people living with frailty and dementia can have a damn fine life.” Failing to preserve the dignity of older adults—especially those in long-term care facilities—can lead to depression and even accelerate death. 

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Personal dignity relates to a sense of worthiness tied to personal goals and circumstances, while basic dignity is the inherent dignity of every human being that should be regarded as universal. For the elderly, personal dignity is inextricably linked to quality of life. 

Data from the 2018 National Study of Long-Term Care Providers shows that an estimated 251,100 seniors were enrolled in U.S. adult day services centers in 2018. More than half required assistance with three or more activities of daily living such as grooming and bathing, and most were diagnosed with two or three chronic conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Are these seniors getting the care they need to live their lives with personal dignity? Sadly, the answer is often no. As older Americans place greater demands on the healthcare system, including in-home care and assisted living facilities, the number of professional and family caregivers is projected to decline according to organizations like the AARP Public Policy Institute. That is coupled with “a relentless focus on the individual” in the U.S., as Dr. Murial Gillick, a specialist in geriatrics and palliative care, told Harvard Magazine. “American culture is focused on people doing for themselves,” she added. “If you can’t, well, just tough.”

But there is hope. The joint Medicare/Medicaid model PACE, or Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, which was started in San Francisco in the 1970s, helps seniors meet their healthcare needs in the community rather than going into a care facility. PACE provides a team of healthcare professionals who work with elderly individuals and their families to make sure they get necessary, coordinated care. This includes Medicare- and Medicaid-supported services including medication, healthcare provider visits, transportation, dentistry, physical and recreational therapy, drugs, laboratory services, home care, hospital visits, and caregiving facilities when needed.

The Greenhouse Project (GHP), a 17-year-old not-for-profit organization, was founded on the belief that everyone has the right to age with dignity. GHP works to destigmatize aging and to create non-institutional eldercare environments that empower both the lives of the residents, but also the caregivers who work there. The organization’s team is composed of experts in the fields of aging services, business and finance, communications, marketing, and healthcare. GHP partners with senior living providers to create homes for seniors that provide them with more meaningful, satisfying lives and relationships. It implements comprehensive change as well as dementia education and training.

Regis College, which offers courses in public health, nursing, and social work (among others), recently published a blog that speaks to preserving integrity in senior care, encompassing respect for the individual, including the assurance of the successful completion of activities of daily living (ADL). These factors are assessed by lawmakers when developing health policies regarding senior care. The blog maintains that while many caregiving institutions and frontline caregivers frequently fall short in meeting the needs of senior patients, healthcare leaders can develop and enforce patient engagement policies that focus on alleviating issues such as heavy caseloads, scanty resources, time limitations, and caregiver burnout.

Aging in place—meaning remaining at home while receiving healthcare services—is an increasingly popular option for older Americans. According to an infographic posted by Caring Senior Service, nine out of ten seniors want to stay at home as long as possible, yet the average distance between family members—who often serve as caregivers—is growing to 280 miles. In the past, seniors commonly lived out their final years in their own homes. Today, though, many seniors transition through this stage of life in long-term care facilities. And both at home or in a senior living community, dignity encompasses collaboration and communication between caregivers, families, and clinicians.

The Allure Group operates six holistic health centers for seniors across Brooklyn and Manhattan, offering short-term as well as long-term care.  In addition to providing a welcoming, inclusive community, Allure’s team of dedicated nurses, therapists, and other healthcare professionals ensure comprehensive care as well as a range of activities for residents. The company prides itself on using leading-edge technology to help patients recover from surgery and other medical events at Allure’s centers, and after patients return home. Using telehealth technology, Allure makes 24/7 communication between patients and clinicians seamless, thus preserving the privacy and dignity of its residents and newly released patients.

According to the AARP, one of the most important ways to preserve seniors’ dignity is to ensure that they have meaning, purpose, and responsibility in their lives. Control, whether it’s paying bills or selecting meals or television programs to watch, helps our aging family members retain a positive attitude, resulting in a better quality of life whether they are aging in place or living in a care facility.

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