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Caring for Seniors

Dissecting the Language Around Aging and Older Adults’ Wellness

Our thoughts include words that often drive our behaviors. Words can influence our motivation for wellness and, largely, how well we age.

Changing conventional wisdom

Assisted living facilities of the present may soon be relics of the past. Data from the American Association of Retired Persons suggests approximately 90 percent of older adults want, and intend, to age in place and in community.

“The future of aging will be different, and it’s time to challenge conventional wisdom. Older adults expect their communities to support their changing needs, recognize their abilities and enable their contributions to the greater good,” says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging.

Shaping the conversation

The language of aging must also evolve. It is not about simply growing older without disease but rather enhancing our ability to continue sharing our gifts. By using words focusing on positive aspects of aging, we can begin to change perceptions about growing older.

The National Wellness Institute’s (NWI) definition of wellness exemplifies the inextricable connection between wellness and aging. Using positive and affirming language, NWI defines wellness as “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence. Wellness is a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential; wellness is multidimensional and holistic, encompassing lifestyle, mental and spiritual well-being, and the environment; and wellness is positive and affirming.”

This definition, and NWI’s Six Dimensions of Wellness model, can guide us in understanding and responding to changes posed by aging. Reframing our language from a focus on “decline” to “purposeful aging” inspires and uplifts, leading to the allocation of resources and creation of products, services and opportunities that support this important juncture in life. Opportunities for lifelong learning, walkable and safe streets, reliable public transportation, good nutrition options, and a strong health system support older adults to live independently and continue contributing to the overall wellness of our communities.

Older adults are reinventing themselves. It is time to leave behind traditional language of a “silver tsunami” of seniors who retire from work, grow sedentary in their rocking chairs, and drift off into loss of function and inevitable senility. Instead, the opportunity of living longer provides “a silver reservoir” of older adults who contribute to their communities in meaningful ways through volunteer service, new vocations, travel, learning and personal growth.

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