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“The future of aging is in robots.”

My heart sank when the presenter uttered those words.

Kathy and I attended a conference on aging in Toronto, Ontario in July 2018 and the keynote speaker was a recognized authority on incorporating robots in caring for our seniors.

Her position was that robots would become the “new caregiver” and replace the need for human caregivers.

Seniors would never have to feel lonely and isolated again, as long as they had robot XJ49-B in their home.

Based on how everyone in the audience was clapping and cheering, you would have thought they’d announced a cure for cancer.

To be clear, I love technology.

I have every type of gadget and I’m always curious about new innovations, but as I was listening to the presenter, I knew in my gut that there was something fundamentally flawed with believing that robots can replace the compassion and caring of human caregivers.

Here’s why I believe that:

  1. As human beings we are wired for human interaction and there is something magical that happens, energetically, when two people connect. Whether it be in words or in touch. The nuances of human behavior are so sophisticated, that it’s beyond the processing capability of machines.
  2. There is an inherent “power imbalance” between a robot and a senior. The robot is technically in charge and will determine when the senior eats, takes their medications or goes to bed. No matter what mood the senior is in, the robot will override the senior, based on its programming.
    Instead of empowering seniors, we are relegating them to be subservient to robots.
  3. There’s also a power imbalance based on the person who programs the robot. The programmer assumes they know what is best for the senior.

I wish I could remember the documentary I watched between a senior woman and a robot caregiver. It was an amazing film (when I find it I’ll post a link). The woman was clearly lonely and isolated. She had lost her husband of many years and she was struggling to get through her days. She was sad and depressed. The robot would follow her around and at meal time, it would badger her by thrusting a spoon toward her mouth. In the scene, the woman had no interest in eating, but the robot didn’t understand that. It kept trying to fulfill its programming. The next scene showed the woman lying in bed, in the dark, and when she opens her eyes, the robot’s face is hovering 2 inches above hers. She screams and the robot tells her it was checking her vital signs.

The documentary ends with the woman having a slow dance with the robot. It was a strange and poignant scene, but it beautifully illustrated what the woman really wanted. She wanted to be held and do what she had done, many times, with her husband. The robot was completely oblivious.

As we search for ways to make the experience of aging better for seniors, there will be a natural tendency to look for technological solutions. They are easy and convenient and once they are in place, they run themselves (at least until the batteries run out). But they don’t satisfy the most fundamental need we have as human beings. The need for compassion and connection with other human beings.

I’m all for labour-saving devices, but when it comes to caregiving and helping seniors cope with loneliness and isolation, I will take a human over a machine any day.

What do you think about this?

As a child I was once taken to a concert, and I remember little of it except for the song lyrics, “this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”.  I wondered at the time, what is an “age of” something, and how do you know it’s dawning?

Well, I’m going to tell you that this is the dawning of the age of wellbeing.

In your own mind, think about present attitudes towards aging?  What words come to mind?  Write down ten of them.  I bet that most of them are negative, or involve apprehension.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Like me, you are probably a person with years of career experience.  You’ve probably been extremely independent, made your own choices about family, travel, relationships, finances. You may have even finished university, or achieved a professional certification.  Do you want to give that all up at some magic “age” number?  No way!  Like me,  you plan to live a full life for as long as possible, involving lifelong learning, fun, friendships, and independent decision-making.  You’ll want to do everything you can to stay active, engaged, and cognitively healthy.

I’m happy to have you along with me as we explore the new ways we’ll together create and negotiate a new way of aging.

I’ll be writing lots of posts in the coming months, so click the Subscribe button below and send me your comments and suggested topics along the way!

My husband and I went to England two summers ago and spent a wonderful week at Oxford University.  We took part in their Oxford Experience, where you get to live, study, and eat (literary readers, note my Oxford comma there), at Christ Church College for the duration of a mini-course.  Every element of it was fascinating:  the course materials, the discussions, the field trips, the High Table dinners in hall.  You get to walk in a thoroughly snobby way past the tourists into the “residents only” areas of the college.  Loved it.

I mention this because after that program I signed up for every kind of Oxford mailing list, and so I regularly receive Facebook posts and promotional emails full of informative links.  The one that caught my attention this week was:

https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/about/brain-resources

The article is clearly a marketing piece for their Continuing Ed programs, but they’re great so I feel okay posting it.  AND, it’s full of links about research I’m pretty excited about:  how lifelong learning benefits the brain throughout life, especially in our later years.

Contrary to earlier beliefs, our brains remain “plastic” — able to re-wire in the face of injury or illness, so to speak — even when we’re old.  We don’t have to give in to the notion of inevitable decline.  Yes, we can learn that language, instrument, skill, what have you, at any age.

Our culture has traditionally considered retirement a time to kick back and stop doing what you’ve been doing for decades.  Slow down, relax. However, researchers in brain health now say that, in fact:

At retirement age, the expectation is that we will slow down. Most people yearn for the day they can slow down and strive less – little knowing that this is probably the very worst thing they can do.

This is really good news for people willing to “take up the challenge to learn.”  The article gives the example of well-known artists who lived and produced great work well into their 80s.  We don’t all have to be Michaelangelos, but for sure there are many opportunities for people to expand and grow creatively before and after retirement.

In what ways do YOU want to continue learning?  How will you keep your brain active as you move toward (or further along in) retirement?  Comment below!  (In the meantime, I’m going to check out the video on lifestyle changes that can help ward off dementia in one of the article’s sidebar links.  We can chat about that one next time!)

Thrive, what a perfect word to describe a positive way of aging that we can strive for.

“Through wise eyes: Thriving elder women’s perspectives on thriving in elder adulthood” is an article that grabbed my attention this past weekend.

Its author is Beverly Hardcastle Stanford, a professor emerita of Human Development. She starts by saying that “the rising wave of elders alive today promise(s) significant changes in how we view and live out our old age.”  She summarizes various studies and notes the need for society to look at old age as a period of creativity and productivity, a time when people have more time (sans homework, career work, driving kids around, etc.) to use their accumulated knowledge and wisdom to mentor and care for others.

What else is involved in thriving?  Feeling well, even if you’re not.  At first I thought, what? But, she explains that subjective feelings of wellbeing are more important than objective ones.  Your doctor might tell you that you have this or that disorder, but if you believe that despite all that, life is great, then you are more likely to thrive. “I’m happy to be as active as I am,” said one study participant, for example.

A group of elders was asked to offer advice to the next generation.  I’m going to include the whole list of themes because I think we can discuss them in more detail in future blog posts.  The elders referred to:

(a) vital involvement and service; (b) desire to continue
learning, (c) appreciation of family, health, home, and financial
security, (d) valuing honesty and responsibility, (e) a positive attitude,
and (f) a reliance on faith.

(I highlighted item b because that theme seems to come up often.  Lifelong learning, my personal passion.  I know that’ll be an easy one for me to focus on as I grow older.)

The author asked the study participants why they were thriving, some said that
thriving needs to be intentionally sought“.  I thought this was powerful and amazing advice!  You have to make a conscious decision to thrive, to choose it when other options are available (being miserable, giving up, withdrawing, refusing to learn new things, etc.).  ” It’s very easy to get into a slump and just sit around the house
and watch television,” said one woman, who “pushes herself” to volunteer and go to museums and movies.

Were the women in the study just lucky to have had easy lives, making it easy to be so positive?  No.  The author interviewed them in detail to learn that most of them had experienced various types of trauma and loss throughout their lives.  The key point was their intentionality to thrive.   Thriving in older age doesn’t just happen.  You have to work at it.

There’s so much in this article to discuss further, so let’s keep referring back to it!  For now, tell me about what intentions YOU have to thrive as you get older?  Which of the themes (a) to (f) above seem to resonate most strongly with you?  Post your comments below!

(The English teacher in me requires I give the full citation for this article:

Stanford, B. H. (2006). Through wise eyes: Thriving elder women’s perspectives on thriving in elder adulthood. Educational Gerontology, 32(10), 881-905. doi:10.1080/03601270600846709)

I came across an article (no magic to that – I’m always researching things!) called “The phenomenon of later-life re-careering by well-educated baby boomers”.  I stumbled across it while doing my homework for an online university program I’m taking.  It’s in their academic journal databases, so if you have access to anything like that you can find the article in the Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Cultures (Volume 6, 2015).

If you don’t, don’t worry, here’s the general gist:  The author, Candy K. Rice, notes that there’s “a critical need to embrace a new paradigm of work activities in positive aging.”  Up until recently, studies of older adults has focused on the idea that people will have a primary career and then bang, retire.  Retirement might include some volunteer work, or “just for fun” part time work.

Now, though, it seems that more people are extending their working lives by choosing a second career= recareering. Why?  Simply because they don’t want to retire=leaving the professional world for good.  The study participants all really enjoyed their second careers, even if the job required them to work more hours than their primary careers did.

How did they get these new careers?  Generally, Rice tells us, through the networks the people had from their primary careers.  Then they enjoyed extending those networks with new connections. The people wanted to continue meeting people on a professional level, as they had done all their lives. Volunteering is a great way to meet people, of course, but the relationship is not the same.

The study participants said they want to stay engaged in meaningful, fulfilling work and to continue learning.  My favourite quote from the article, in fact, is:

“Participants valued continued growth, were hungry to learn, and were eager to embrace change.”

Wow, lifelong learning, put into practice!  Extending their working lives was viewed as continued growth–not a burden or chore.  In my own years of work, I’ve never heard anyone ever say they were “hungry to learn”.  I’m so fascinated by this!  Could it be that the pressures we have in our primary careers make us focus on “getting it done”, rather than on actually enjoying what we are doing?  In later life, when many professionals can relax a bit about finances, child-raising, mortgages and such, can the focus switch to pursuing personal fulfillment?

What are your thoughts on this?  Are you eager to retire, or do you want to extend your professional life with a second career?  Are you looking to embrace lifelong learning through work?  What kind of second career do you see yourself in?  Comment below and let me know!

This is a story of transformation that has forever changed how I feel about the power of lifelong learning. The story was told to me by one of our Clever Companion graduates, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn was first introduced to Bill Stewart, age 86, two years ago, in Victoria, by his daughter Carol. Carol was Bill’s only child and ever since his wife, Helen, passed away, he had become more dependent on her.

The problem was that Bill lived in Victoria and Carol lived in Calgary, with her husband and two kids. There was 450 miles separating them. It was clear Carol was devoted to her father, but there was only so much she could do. She had a busy life of her own. Her full-time career as a nurse and taking care of her family.

Carol felt responsible to look after her father, but often she felt powerless. She would call her father every Sunday, and many times she would finish the call in tears. Her Dad would tell her how lonely he was and how he missed her mother. Bill and Helen had been married for 54 years and had been inseparable. They had travelled throughout the world and were each other’s best friend. After a long bout with cancer, Helen died last year. Now he was on his own, in a house that was clearly too big for him, but for Bill, the house contained all the memories he had with Helen and he wasn’t about to sell and move to Calgary.

What made matters worse, was that Helen had always been the social one in their marriage. As Bill would say, Helen was social enough for both of them! Now he mostly puttered around the house, and the height of his social contact was chatting with the cashiers at the local grocery store.

As long as Carol could remember, her father had an interest in trains, all the different kinds, their routes, and how they had evolved over the years. He was also fascinated in World War II stories, especially about particular battles and how one general was better than another.

Carol decided that since she couldn’t be there are often as she would like, she would arrange for someone to meet with her father each week and engage him in conversation. She had heard about the Clever Companion program from a work colleague and she thought it might be worth a try. She arranged for Jocelyn to meet them at her dad’s home.

Jocelyn told me that Bill was soft spoken and polite, but she could tell he was guarded. As she does with many of her clients, she let Bill know what the Clever Companion program was about and suggested he try it for a couple of sessions and then decide for himself. He agreed.

By the time Jocelyn saw Bill the following week, Carol had already returned to Calgary. Jocelyn could tell Bill thought the world of his daughter and in spite of his reservations, he was willing to give the sessions a try.

That’s when things started to get interesting.

Jocelyn established an agreement with Bill that they would focus their first few sessions on trains. She wanted to know why Bill enjoyed trains so much and she wanted to hear all about his past experiences.

She could see the sparkle in Bill’s eyes as he told her about the various engine designs, train configurations and which ones were used in different regions of the world. She asked clarifying questions and when necessary had him elaborate on certain points.

Bill was in his element. He was fully present and engaged in the discussion and Jocelyn could see that he was becoming more energetic and animated as he told her the finer points on trains. It was especially good to see Bill go back in his memories to his earlier days, when he travelled by train throughout Europe.

Before they knew it, their first 90 minute Clever Companion session was over and Bill was amazed how fast it went by!

In preparation for their next session, Jocelyn gave Bill some homework to research certain topics related to trains and to be ready to present his findings. It was clear Bill was eager to do just that.

What started as their first session, soon expanded to many weeks, covering various topics of interest to Bill. He prided himself on doing his research and he would always be ready with his materials. He took his role very seriously.

Jocelyn kept Carol informed how things were going and Carol couldn’t believe how much her father had changed over the weeks. He told her how much he was enjoying his discussions with Jocelyn and how the sessions had re-kindled his interests.

Carol was just amazed how light and positive their Sunday calls had become and she no longer had that heavy feeling, worrying about her father. She had the peace of mind knowing that someone she trusted was seeing her father each week and if Jocelyn noticed anything untoward, she would be kept informed.

What a difference!

For Bill Stewart, lifelong learning and the social engagement of meeting with Jocelyn each week, was the catalyst to pull him out of his loneliness and isolation and give him a sense of purpose.

Imagine how many seniors, like Bill Stewart, are out there, who could use the same support?