“So what do we as Seniors need, to be empowered? First and foremost we don’t want caregivers, we want support staff! We want partnerships with professionals who can see past the wrinkles & gray hair & see the person inside. And what we want & need is to stay connected with the community and engaged in life.”
That’s a quote from my friend and mentor Dawn Schultz, Senior Center volunteer extraordinaire. Dawn facilitated a panel of volunteers from the Charlottesville Virginia Senior Center to do a presentation called “A Business Model for Empowering Seniors.”
To learn more about Dawn and her advice on communicating effectively with senior citizens, see these posts:
- Communicating with Senior Citizens: Listen, Be Authentic, Show Respect
- How to Effectively Communicate with Senior Citizens and Their Adult Children
The text of Dawn’s presentation is listed below, and I’ve also included a video of each of the presentations. Here are mini-bios of each of the participants:
- Dawn Schultz, 77, runs the Senior Center’s Computer Center and organizes computer help as needed. She runs the Comparative Religions series in which she does the research, gives the presentation, and facilitates the discussion. She organizes a program series with the University of Virginia Health System called “Chasing Life.” She is a major player in putting together the annual Senior Center Active Aging Fair.
- Al Falcone, 92, is the winner of the 2014 Virginia state Home Instead Senior Service Award . He is a yard sale volunteer, pricing & cleaning up donations on a weekly basis & fixing furniture in the Center.
- Shirley Bloom 91, runs the Senior Center’s “Socrates Café” program and volunteers for the Senior Center yard sales.
- Clay Sisk, 80, runs the Apple/Mac side of Senior Center’s computer services, runs a weekly 2 hour class on “All Things Apple” and gives one on one instruction as needed.
A Business Model for Empowering Seniors, by Dawn Shultz
So, what is empowerment? Empowerment is like a placebo. If we believe we can, we will. And in clinical trials, not only did sugar pills cure some of the folks in the control groups, but in many cases, they permanently changed their brain waves!
So successful empowerment enables Seniors to become their own placebo. So what do we as Seniors need, to be empowered? First & foremost we don’t want caregivers, we want support staff! We want partnerships with professionals who can see past the wrinkles & gray hair & see the person inside. And what we want & need is to stay connected with the community & engaged in life. From its beginning 54 years ago the Senior Center understood that connection & commitment to other people is a prime factor in empowerment for healthy aging. And recent studies have shown that to be socially isolated is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
In 1960 among the first programs the Senior Center put in place were making Pinkie Puppets for UVA Children’s Hospital, a program that is still active today. They also made dressings for the Cancer Society, & stuffed envelopes for various fund raising drives such as the Rescue Squad, & the Heart Fund. So 54 years ago, it was already understood that volunteerism can improve Seniors’ health.
It used to be thought that educated people live longer because they know more about diet & exercise. But digging deeper, researchers have found that we are all control freaks at heart – at least for our own lives. And the key to a HEALTHY longer life is not physical as much as emotional. And feeling in control of our own lives is a huge factor. I found a list of what folks well into their hundreds thought had enabled them to live long & healthy lives, & their answers ranged from “friends & a good cigar,” to “eating lots of chocolate,” to “work hard & love what you do.” In other words while a healthy physical lifestyle can help, an emotional passion for life is far more important.
And at any age we all need to feel valued, needed & in control of our lives. And your job as care providers is to try to keep that feeling going for as long as possible, by not doing everything for your clients if they can do for themselves, even if they can only do small things.
But there are a lot of compensations for being older, such as being much more emotionally stable & generally happier. And the art of surviving old age, of “living long & dying short” as the saying goes, is to constantly look outside yourself, & find a purpose so you can continue to be passionate about your life.
So how does the Senior Center deal with these points? While a lot of the structural things & the basic culture have been in place for decades, it has only come to full fruition since Peter Thompson became Executive Director in late 1999. That was the same year I joined the Center, so I have seen the changes first hand. Before Peter, we already had a volunteer program, & a Senior Council made up of Program Leaders, where most programs in the Center were run by Senior Center members.
But empowering Seniors isn’t just a question of using the right language, or painting the building in non institutional colors, or even putting participatory structures in place. It is treating every Senior as the highly unique adult they are. When I first joined the Center, the gap between staff & members was wide. I got the feeling that some staff were working with Seniors mainly because it made them feel virtuous to help us old folks in our dotage years.
But Peter, by his leadership, has nudged the culture of the Center into a more lateral egalitarian structure where staff operates as a team. And members are a vital part of the day to day operation. Members even help choose new staff when the need arises. And because staff impact members lives, there is always at least one Senior member on any employee search committee.
When I joined the Center in 1999, there were 50 programs, now there are over 100. So staff need volunteers ever more to help them do their jobs. And a symbiosis has grown up between staff & members where each need the other to make the Center function.
And under Peter’s leadership there is a openness, trust, & respect between staff & members whereby I don’t even think about the fact that I am decades older than a lot of the staff.
But then, sometimes, when I go out into the community & am ignored or patronized based on my gray hair & wrinkles, it takes me by surprise. But my self esteem, because of the Senior Center, is high enough that I can laugh it off & dismiss their ignorance, rather than being hurt by it.
Peter has also managed to make the goals, mission & vision of the Center, something that not only staff but most members passionately support. And he has done that, not with rules & regulations, but by careful influence.
For example Peter, & therefore staff, don’t even know the word “no.” A member can come up with a wild idea for a new program, & provided they are willing to run it, they can try it. And I personally have experience when I have come up with ideas for the Center that I would like to try, which I later realized wouldn’t work, & not only did Peter support me but I had my email inbox bombarded with helpful material & contacts that Peter thought I might want to consider if I went ahead with my idea. Now that’s empowerment. And in the fiscal year 2000 when Peter had only been Executive Director for 6 months, the volunteer hours of Senior Center members were 17,000. Yet in fiscal year 2014 we logged over 50,000 hours, valued at 1.1 million dollars. Now that’s really empowerment!
We communicate 20% by the words we use, 20% by our tone of voice, & 60% by our body language. So unless you really like us, going through the motions with politically correct speech just wont ring true. We’ve had a lifetime of reading body language so we are better at it than you are. But for the more frail Seniors this will require some creative ideas, which is why I love the idea of Generations Crossing, when Seniors who are in need of day care, can go to a place where children are also in day care, & the Seniors can help look after the children – under supervision of course!
So encourage your clients to expand their interests beyond doctor’s visits & waiting for the grandkids to visit. Believe in their ability to be more than they are currently are, & they can do more than they currently think they can. And most of all genuinely like or dislike seniors based on who we are as people not on how old we are.
For more articles like this, see Communicating with Senior Citizens and Hearts at Work.
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