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Memo to Care Providers: Focus on Older Adults’ Strengths


The tools currently used by health and social service agencies to assess older adults sell them short, limiting their opportunities, a recent study reports.

Traditional assessment tools are designed to get a large amount of information quickly, such as an older person’s dependencies and support network. And while they provide valuable information, they focus on older adults’ deficiencies and ignore their strengths.

“Programs designed to support an older person’s strengths have the potential to reduce the number of elders who may later need extensive health and social services,” says study author Dr. Nieli Langer, a researcher at College of New Rochelle in New York.

The study appeared in the August 2004 issue of the journal, Educational Gerontology.

Adults who age well, believe in themselves and their capabilities, remain active, and stay engaged intellectually, according to current research.

Also, as people grow older, they call on inner resources such as spirituality (meaningfulness) and mastery (control) to deal with adversity and help buffer the stresses of aging.

“Spirituality and resilience are dimensions of human life that evolve throughout life and gain momentum in the later years,” says Langer . Even when adults have become frail, they are capable of making the necessary modifications in goals and aspirations.

Langer calls for a shift to “whole person care” with a focus on older adults’ strengths.

However, if social service and health care professionals are to provide whole person care, they need to know the lens through which clients view their current and past lives. In other words, they must understand “how older adults manage a variety of crises, including changes in health, social network, finances, and the ability to live independently,” the study says.

This will require health and social service professionals to use assessment tools that focus on the capabilities, assets, and positive attributes of older people.

For example, assessing older adults’ spirituality and resiliency by means of individual counseling, may assist older persons to recognize their capacity to readjust during periods of disruption and loss.

“Serious illness is a loss of the ‘destination and map’ that had previously guided the ill person’s life,” points out sociologist Arthur Frank of the University of Calgary. Part of the process of healing and getting on with life requires those who are ill learn to find a new map – to create a new story for their lives.

“They learn by hearing themselves tell their stories, absorbing others’ reactions and experiencing their stories being shared,” Frank says.

The new story makes action and change possible. People grow from strength, not from weakness.

Therefore, if health and social services agencies are to help older persons to live independently for as long as possible, they must adopt a whole person care approach, focusing on older adults strengths, not just their deficits.

Older persons need a dream as well as a memory.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel