Georgia Tech researchers to test effectiveness of senior services

By Laura Berrios – For the AJC

The National Aging in Place Council is looking to Atlanta to help change the way people think about growing old.

First of all, members want to put some weight behind the buzz phrase: aging in place. It’s used often when speaking of the elderly, but it is rarely understood, council leaders say.

“People say, ‘What is it?’ Well, to us, it’s more than a cliche. It’s a system,” says National Aging in Place Council Executive Director Marty Bell.

Proving this system is where Atlanta comes in.

The national council, based in Washington, D.C., is partnering with Georgia Tech Research Institute’s HomeLab for a pilot program here that will track outcomes from older adults who use services and information available to help them remain independent as they age. These seniors will be compared with those who choose not to access services.

Georgia Tech researchers will follow the seniors for at least a year initially, and then longer, to see if older adults who utilize services and information have better outcomes than those who make do on their own.

“Most people want to ignore that they are aging. We believe, and want to prove, that if you plan, you can have a better outcome,” Bell said.

The pilot program is expected to start sometime in 2016, but donations are still needed to fund the research and subsequent marketing efforts. Bell said he will meet with “a lot of companies” during the first quarter of the year to raise money to get the program underway.

The National Aging in Place Council of Greater Atlanta will take the lead role in overseeing the project, with the Atlanta Regional Commission and other area aging advocates joining in the efforts. Bell said he wanted to get the whole city involved and hopes the pilot will become a model program that can be replicated around the country.

Georgia Tech’s HomeLab takes on projects that track older adults to help evaluate perceptions of aging. Researchers frequently test products to determine what adults 50 years of age and older want or need. HomeLab has a volunteer network of more than 600 seniors across a 10-county region in Georgia, and these participants will be engaged in the pilot study.

Showing positive outcomes of age planning leads to the organization’s other focus: getting people to talk about the subject much earlier than they ever thought they needed to.

In short, the aging conversation should be as natural and non-threatening as talking about retirement. In fact, said Bell, it should be part of the same conversation. And, like retirement, aging in place also should be planned.

“Traditionally, retirement planning has focused on finances and funding, but it has to be much broader than that,” Bell said. Retirement plans should also include housing, health care, transportation, personal finances and social interaction, among others.

MaryLea Quinn, chair of the National Aging in Place Council’s Greater Atlanta chapter, agreed the organization has to do a better job of getting the information out so that people can plan earlier for what they want their lifestyle to be as they get older.

“These are decisions you need to make ahead of time, and not in a crisis,” she said.

One problem is the generational divide in how adults view aging. According to research by the Georgia Tech School of Psychology, the Depression-era seniors believe aging is inevitable, and they feel fortunate to have lived so long. Their boomer children are likely to be in age denial. They want to stay healthy and keep growing, and don’t want to look or act old.

Because their expectations are different, the approach to aging in place also has to be different, Quinn said.

“Boomers are more open to technological advances and won’t be afraid to use innovative methods when aging in place. But at the same time, we still have to meet the needs of the Depression-era seniors,” she said.

GENERATION INFLUENCES: Silent Generation (1922-1945), Formative influences: WWII, GI Bill, civil rights movement, Core values: respect for authority, conformity, discipline, Key value: family/community, Work: livelihood, Money: save, Attitude toward own aging: fortunate; inevitable, Baby boomers (1946-1964)

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