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Beyond Cliches and Stereotypes

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Now that most anxieties and broadsides of the pandemic are in the rearview mirror, Calgary seniors are transitioning into the new normal of post-COVID senior living. Without much fanfare or bravado, the 60+ generation is subtle and stealth about defining contemporary wants and needs and redefining the must-haves of contemporary senior living.

“Today’s seniors don’t see retirement as a time to ‘relax’, but more as a time of a transition,” says the upbeat Careen Chrusch, director of communications at Calgary’s United Active Living. “A time to turn their attention to the joys of life: family, friends, hobbies, adventures. Seniors want an enriching lifestyle that provides the services and amenities to enjoy an engaging, entertaining, fulfilling life full of experiences.

“The older adult is also well versed in a variety of areas such as travel and different life experiences. The expansion of accommodation into an experience-based culture will become a time of disruption for providers, as we move from where we are today into where we need to be tomorrow to remain in step with our residents,” she adds.

The commonly held perception of a “typical senior” is changing so quickly and dramatically that it is already impacting, what Chrusch calls “different life experiences” and what they expect and demand from a senior living facility, particularly as it relates to amenities and social offerings.

“Older adults are a diverse group with diverse interests,” explains Dr. David Hogan, a clinician-researcher at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and a specialist in geriatric medicine. “These interests, desires and needs also overlap with those of younger adults, especially when you compare middle-aged with the ‘young-old’ (age 65 – 74). And it’s well documented that older adult tend to expend more effort to maintain their health and deal with health conditions.”

For basic and obvious reasons, health factors figure prominently into the realities of the senior lifestyle, although easy cliches and stereotypes often exaggerate and create the misleading impression of a pre-occupations with aches and pains and health worries.

More and more, the design, layout, focus and aging-in-place amenities of contemporary (particularly Calgary) senior living communities are dynamic indicators about the changes to the demographics of senior living residents and the common perception of what ‘being a senior’ means is dramatically changing as today’s baby boomer generations take its place in the new normal of senior living.

Gone (or going) are the cartoon-character images of blanket-wrapped people in rocking chairs with hospital beds and walkers. The current generation of seniors is actively redefining the idea of “being a senior” and on the wants-and-needs priority list are new experiences through health and wellness initiatives and technological advances to the facilities they call home.

Some say today’s boomers are trendsetters for a new type of senior living. The 65+ generation is simply staying healthier and living longer and, according to gerontologists and researchers, because of their increased longevity there may be an evolving extra stage of life – between middle age and old age.

“Entertainment, socialization and travel will remain at the top of their list as all want to enjoy life to the fullest,” says Adrienne Wedding at Calgary’s Journey Club at Westman Village. “The future of senior living will encompass a true age in place concept where residents can remain in place regardless of specific medical needs. Journey Club pioneered this concept in Calgary, where residents no longer need to move to a separate part of a building known as ‘assisted living.’ We bring the care to them, within their suite. Access to medical services, including holistic medicine, are a key as seniors explore different wellness avenues.”

Most aging experts agree that the common cliches about seniors and health are as misinformed and naïve as the newer trendy stereotypes about seniors being out-of-touch and tech-challenged. All stats and details to the contrary, today’s seniors are much more plugged-in than they get credit for.

“When prospective residents are looking for their next home, access to Wi-Fi, computers, and other smart technology within the suite are more and more common place than we have ever seen before,” Chrusch says. “Seniors want the luxury of quick access to information and, I anticipate we will see programing and day to day services evolve at a rapid pace in the next few years to include more interactive programing.”

As an aging specialist, Dr. Hogan emphasizes the relevance and importance of technology for today’s seniors, not as gadgets or toys. “Older adults have absolutely not closed their minds to the potential benefits of technology. But it has to fit a need for them, it has to be reliable and intuitive to use. For example, information technology has been invaluable, helping them remain in-contact with family and friends.”

Wedding agrees. “Technology is playing a big part in our resident’s lives everyday, as they interact with the rest of the world through mediums such as Facetime, Zoom and online purchasing platforms like Amazon.”

Perhaps two of the most important aspects of senior living is also the most challenging to do much about – isolation and mental health. The past 18 months of lockdowns and restrictions have not only highlighted but acerbated the common fact of senior living life that is difficult to diagnose and treat: loneliness. Whether it’s limited contact with family or friends.

“When looking at someone’s overall care needs in older adult living, mental health should be a priority to ensure each individual’s entire wellbeing is looked after,” Chrusch points out. “Moving into a community setting after living at home, for some, can be a significant transition in which individuals can experience anxiety or other emotional concerns.

“In order to support someone with loneliness and isolation, it is important to first understand who someone is, to know how and what supports to offer. Building a relationship and knowing what someone’s interests are, or what gives them a sense of purpose, assists professionals in knowing how to encourage them to become engaged in the community,” she says.

Staying involved – with activities and people – is a key aspect of today’s senior living. “The Journey Club has a team of engagement specialists, focused directly on resident wants, needs and backgrounds. It’s vital that the activity calendar is resident-driven,” Wedding says, “whether it’s exercise programs, educational programing like history lectures, medical seminars and fun-type activities such as art classes, aquasize and wine tastings. Residents tell us what they want and we plan around their requests.”

Hogan cautions about chalking-up ‘loneliness’ merely as a new stereotype. “The pandemic helped us realize that isolation and mental health, which have been around for a long tie, are two different and real concepts. Social isolation describes the absence of social contact and can lead to loneliness, and it could also trigger other mental health issues like depression and anxiety.”

Thanks to contemporary changes – improvements in public health, nutrition, medicine and even seniors embracing technology as a source of information and a tool for socializing – average life expectancy is increasing.

In the past 20 years, life expectancy has jumped by six years – from 64 to 71 – and with factors like breakthroughs in biomedical technology, it will probably increase more in the next 10 years. Conservative estimates suggest life expectancy to reach 80 for both men and women, by the year 2050.

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