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Have an interest in the well-being of older adults, a passion for elder advocacy, or just considering a career with more job security? As more and more baby boomers reach retirement age, the United States is experiencing a shortage of people trained to meet the unique needs of older adults. There are a number of career paths an individual can take if they want to work with or for older Americans. There’s medicine, teaching, public policy, non-profit work, and research just to name a few.

I’m a member of the Gamma Upsilon chapter of Sigma Phi Omega national gerontology honor society at the UMass Boston.  Our officers are hosting a local event during “Careers in Aging Week” on April 8, 2013 that will feature a career panel and luncheon for interested students, adult learners, faculty, career counselors, and the general public.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Burr, chair of my gerontology department,“This Careers in Aging Week event will provide important information about the wide range of professions in the field of aging and aging research, raise awareness about older populations and their needs, and inform students and the public of the many academic programs available to get one started on a career path.”

As someone who has been in an aging field for years, I am hoping not only to learn about job opportunities but to network with local professionals at the event. “Gamma Upsilon’s chapter of Sigma Phi Omega national academic honor society at University of Massachusetts Boston is proud to bring Careers in Aging Week to the Boston community,” said Kristen Porter, a PhD student in gerontology and president of the chapter. “We will be joining our colleagues across the country who are hosting similar events. Our April 8 event includes a lunch reception with gerontology faculty and students along with a career panel comprised of four esteemed professionals working in distinct aspects of the aging field.”

Panelists include Jane Saczynski, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at UMass Medical School; Suzanne Leveille, PhD, RN, Director of PhD Program in Nursing at UMass Boston; Andrea Cohen, CEO at HouseWorks; and Emily Shea, Commissioner of the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. Porter notes, “Panelists will share their own education and career trajectories as well as offer their advice to students considering a career in the aging field.”

The event is free and will take place at the University of Massachusetts Boston in McCormack Hall’s Ryan Lounge beginning at 12:30 p.m. If you are in the Boston area this is a great opportunity to learn and network, hope I see you there!

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Last week I was asked to present high school students with information on women in the workforce and saving for retirement. One of my major goals was to instill the value of starting early. But I had the sense, maybe because I’m not too far from high school age myself, that my slides about compound interest and Roth IRAs would be particularly boring.

Rather than watch their eyes glaze over I added a new slide: A personal story about my mother, her life course, marital history and saving behavior. I wasn’t saying anything novel but by explaining compound interest this way I kept everyone’s attention. So, I encourage you to share this with the young people in your life and reflect on what it really means to save early and save often.

(For simplicity, the interest rate at all time points is 5%. In actuality, she gained more during her earlier life and has lost a lot during the recent recession).

This figure tells us two stories. Let’s begin with the story in blue, which is what really happened. At age 21, my mom got married and started working a new job. She was so excited to finally have her own money and be able to buy all the clothes she wanted and decorate their new house. My dad, however, didn’t think this was a good plan and told her, “Save your money! We both should be saving now for our future.” Reluctantly she saved, putting $2,000 away each year for her retirement. By the time her first child was born (me!) she had saved up $20,000.

In her 30’s she had another baby and raised my sister and me. She was not working or saving at this time but her $20,000 continued to grow. By 42 her marriage was on the rocks and she became divorced. Now, all that planning for her future had to be done alone. She spent a couple years searching for a new job and struggling with the change. Even so, the savings from her 20’s continued to grow. By 45 she found a new job and started her career over. She was getting nervous about her retirement savings and started putting away $5,000 a year. The savings from her new job were added the nice nest egg she had accumulated while she wasn’t working. The final blue bar shows an optimistic future where she continues to save each year, the economy improves and hopefully she reaches over $300,000 by retirement.

What is the reality of saving? Well, you can’t always save when you want to or need to and it’s hard to predict the future. For example, my mom couldn’t predict that we’d be in an economic recession right at the time most people her age start saving for retirement. The green bars show us what this path would look like for her. Nothing in her life has changed except that she didn’t save in her 20’s. Instead she chose to ignore my dad’s suggestion and spend her money on clothes, new furniture and all the other things she wanted. The message is clear: Saving early, even if it’s just a little, makes a huge difference for your future.

I can tell you honestly that most of my mom’s friends are extremely worried about their futures. They are in their 50’s, starting to save now and having a difficult time. She knows, though she hates to admit it, my dad was right.

2010 saw the passing of the Elder Justice Act (EJA), the most comprehensive federal elder abuse law in U.S. history. We know from earlier studies that roughly 11 to15% of people ages 60 and older face some form of elder abuse each year. Experts agree this number is under-reporting and the scope of the problem is larger than we realize. According to a 2008 study by the Metlife Mature Market Institute et al., the perpetrators of elder financial abuse are typically not strangers. They are often businesses, service providers, family and friends who have gained the trust of the older adult. Here are some interesting findings:

  • The victims of elder financial abuse are losing a combined total of $2.9 billion dollars annually.
  • Women are twice as likely to be victims of financial abuse as men. Most of these women are age 80-89, living alone, and requiring some help in the home or with their health care.
  • Nearly 60% of the perpetrator were men, mostly aged 30-59.
  • The amount of money stolen by family or friends increased during the holidays.

Recently the researchers at MetLife updated these numbers, discovering that elder financial abuse cases have risen 12% since 2008. Though instances are increasing, data suggests that only one out of 43.9 financial exploitation cases are reported. Unfortunately the newly passed EJA can do nothing without the support of Congress and the President. Currently the Act only provides Congress with the authority to spend up to $777 million over the next four years on elder abuse. To actually see the money used, however, a separate bill must be passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Until this can get sorted out, and the EJA can strengthen existing adult protective services (APS), here are ways the report says you can watch out for yourself:

  • Stay Alert – Don’t leave valuable items, cash, or checkbooks out in the open. Don’t be left out of decisions about your finances. Don’t sign anything without reading first and having someone you trust review it. If you are a concerned family member, be sure to ask periodically about the elder’s financial situation and keep an eye out for changes in their behavior (i.e. sudden worry about money) and any other sudden financial changes or unusual expenses.
  • Stay Organized – Keep track of possessions, mail, and checking and savings account balances. Know who is calling and use an answering machine or caller ID to screen calls. Know who is asking for personal information and why (never provide this over the phone!)
  • Stay Informed – Know where to go if you suspect abuse (your local APS, the police, or get help from bank employees). Talk to an attorney and keep track of your will, future caregiving arrangements and power of attorney.
  • Report Abuse – Anyone (e.g. elder, family member, physician, bank teller, etc.) suspecting elder abuse should be reporting it to the local APS. Reports can be made confidentially and reporters are protected from civil and criminal liability. It is always better to err on the side of caution.

The Elder Justice Act comes almost 40 years after the passage of the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Act. Congress, and the general public, see the value in protecting vulnerable children from abuse and today we spend upward of $7 billion to help this effort. Surely vulnerable older adults deserve the same protection.

While on a recent phone conversation with my best friend we got to talking about her parents and their (in her opinion) impulsive purchase. They were in North Carolina on vacation and bought a plot of land. They plan to build a house on it over the next couple of years and by the time they retire it will be ready for them to move in. Being a gerontology student and always thinking about long-term care needs, I babbled on for a few minutes about universal design. If they intend to build this home and stay in it for as long as possible, I told my friend, then they should consider their future needs.

Recent statistics show that about 80% of baby boomers want to remain in their homes for as long as possible (and Obama’s new Affordable Care Act may help them do just that with the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program and the expansion of Home and Community-Based Services. A story for another time). If you start planning for it now, you don’t have to have oodles of money to build a house from scratch like my friend’s parents. Let me share with you what I feel are the key components of universal design and home modifications:

  • Think About Daily Activities – when modifying your home to support you in old age focus on making it easy to perform basic activities like bathing, cooking, or getting into and out of your home. Examples:
  1. Install grab bars in the bathroom
  2. Replace doorknobs or faucet handles with lever handles
  3. Install handrails on both sides of any staircases inside or outside your home (or consider ramps)
  4. Create some easy access storage in the kitchen such as a pull-out pantry or adjustable shelves
  • Consider the Age of Your Home – Most older adults live in homes that are over 20 years old and these can have some issues as you age. Some updates to your home can help you age in place. Examples:
  1. Install proper insulation, storm windows, and air conditioning so you have good heating and ventilation
  2. Create 36-inch wide doorways throughout the house for easy access with a wheelchair or walker
  3. Move outlets 18-inches off the floor so you’ll be able to reach them without much bending
  4. Put your laundry on the main floor (definitely get it out of the basement!)
  • Make Safety a Priority – Think about your aging parents. What parts of their home make you nervous? The clutter, the dim lighting, the slippery bathroom? These may also become a safety concern for you one day. Examples:
  1. Get rid of throw rugs (they are very hazardous!)
  2. Place non-slip strips in the bath tub, the kitchen and on any outdoor or indoor stairways
  3. Install bright lighting inside and outside the home, and make sure switches are easy to use and access
  4. Rearrange your furniture so there is plenty of space to move around a room

There are many companies out there that will sell you some pretty sleek looking products. You definitely do not need to spend that kind of money, but I think some people fear their home will look like a hospital if they integrate basic universal design.  Just remember this is entirely up to you, your tastes and your budget. If you start planning for it now and modify your home over time the benefits could greatly outweigh the costs. Below are some resources if you are interested in learning more:

National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification

  • Comprehensive list of online resources
  • Directory for finding services in your area

US Department of Health and Human Services

Recently I’ve been working on this crazy data analysis for my professor. I say crazy because it involves 9 waves of data (different interview time points), a sample of over 22,000 Americans nearing retirement, and over 400 calculated Dow Jones scores representing changes in the stock market from 1992-2008 (That took me a better part of a week!) Our data comes largely from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative, longitudinal data set  that looks at people over 50 and follows them through the end of their working lives and into retirement.

This all started with an idea about the lasting effects of the 2008 stock market crash. All else being equal, whether you were interviewed by the HRS in March or December should have no bearing on your retirement plans. Unless, of course, historical time and place played a role in your decisions. By December you may have been listening to the news, watching your stocks drop, and talking to your spouse about an unanticipated future. Did the changes in 2008 influence people’s plans for retirement? Preliminary results indicate, Yes. Many people who were planning on working till 62 or 65 are now planning to work longer or are no longer sure when they can expect to retire.

So we’ve taken it a step further (enter my hundreds of stock calculations) to examine stock market fluctuations from 1992 to 2008 and see whether or not economic conditions at the time people are interviewed have any effect on individuals’ plans for retirement. I mean sure, people may be thinking and worrying about it but have they really changed their plans? The answers are yet to come!

A few weeks ago we had an expert in longevity come to campus and discuss the field’s cutting edge research. He started his talk asking the class of 20 or so students, ‘Who wants to live to 100?’ I immediately raised my hand and then surprisingly noticed that I was the only one. He smiled and asked me why.

I have longevity on both sides of my family, with my grandmothers and a some of their siblings reaching well into their 90’s. They had their wits about them till the very end and had very few chronic illnesses. It seems only natural that I will also live a long time and, with modern health care, reach 100.  But when he asked the other students why they did not share my enthusiasm, I realized my experience was unique.

Most students said they envisioned people in the 90’s and 100’s as immobile, sickly, mentally ill individuals. Overwhelmingly, this was their experience with aging family members. Yes, they wished to live in good health for as long as possible, but in their minds good health did not extend into the oldest ages.

Research on centenarians tells us that if you do make it to 100, you are most likely exceptionally healthy. “Time’s research found that today’s centenarians are mostly very healthy people. ” And your genetics do not necessarily define your future. Genetics play a role but keeping mentally and physically active, eating right, refraining from smoking or excessive drinking, and continuing to be social and optimistic can really increase your chances of living a long life.

Some people don’t want to live without fast food, alcohol, and a sedentary lifestyle. They may feel that the benefits of living longer aren’t worth it. But I would ask those people to consider how their health may be in the decades before reaching 100. One must consider that this lifestyle could mean you’ll be immobile, sickly, mentally ill in your 70’s and 80’s. No matter how long you expect to live, taking care of yourself now will benefit you later. I think this is what students should keep in mind as they observe their grandparents in old age. You are not destined to their fate.

I too must keep this in mind. My genes do not ensure me a spot among the centenarians if I don’t stay as healthy and active as my grandmothers did.

There is a lot of talk in my classes and coursework about lonely, isolated elders. We discuss how older, disabled individuals living in nursing homes, assisted living, or alone in the community have a hard time interacting with others. Not because they don’t want to but because they have little opportunity for interaction. Maybe they won’t see anyone for days at a time. Maybe they do, but their service provider won’t chat with them beyond pleasantries. Maybe family comes by occasionally or they see them on holidays.

In the years to come I envision an environment where these homes are filled with laptops, web cameras, and cell phones. There is no way the Baby Boomers are going to leave technology behind as they make their way through old age.  They will stay connected because they want to, they know how, and (as many of us have experienced) there is little going back once you’re technologically savvy. Nursing homes will most likely be a very different thing in the future and not nearly as isolating.

So, that leaves us with today’s elders. One of the biggest problems is not getting the technology to them. Companies like Best Buy take our old, broken computers off our hands. A part of me believes they wouldn’t mind donating them to nursing homes and low-income schools so those in need can stay connected. Pretty good PR right? No, the larger issue is probably instruction. How do you teach mass numbers of older people all that they can do with a computer?

I am not talking about teaching them what a mouse is and how to type a letter in Word. I want them to know how they can stay connected to family through email, instant messaging, and Skype. How they can research anything and everything on Wikipedia, learn a language for free on Livemocha, and laugh at the younger generations on YouTube. How they can participate in forums related to their interests or start a blog to share their thoughts with the world. How they can stay connected to the outside and don’t have to feel alone during the last years of their life.

It is not something that can be changed over night but I do think we should start talking about how what the rest of us think of as a normal part of our daily lives may be the answer for older, disabled, isolated adults. We should be trying to empower them to stay connected to the world, we have the technology! Imagine if they did not have to rely on visits from busy family and friends to relieve their loneliness.  They take control of their situation and socialize as much or as little as they want to, so that when family final does come by you may hear them say, “Oh, can you wait a minute? I just need to finish up my conversations,” as you watch them close 4 IM windows saying goodbye to their international friends.

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