LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 06

Fighting Ageism by Adapting the Community to Residents

November 16, 2017 | by Josephine Levy and Jessica Meyer

Are the environments we create unspoken ways of enforcing ageism on everyone? This provider works to create an age-friendly community with adaptive tools and training to help staff better understand residents’ challenges.

This past year has brought with it a new awareness of ageism when it comes to staff training at Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix, AZ. Success Matters™, a division of resident services, has developed and implemented a program we call SimulAge™, an aging-awareness training that focuses on empowering staff to recognize and address some of the physical issues that can accompany aging.

The goal of SimulAge is to combat ageism and create a community of interdependence by helping employees understand that older adults with vision loss, mobility issues, hearing loss or cognitive issues can thrive, given the right environment and supports.

We impress upon employees the notion that no matter our age, we are more than a collection of our physical challenges. Historically, the inherent ageism of both public and private spaces puts the burden on the individual to adapt, rather than the environment. When we, as a society, fail to set up age-friendly environments, we force older adults to fit into the stereotypes we’ve created. Recognizing that the problem is in the environment, which can be modified, and not the person, is key. Giving employees an opportunity to experience the myriad conditions faced by residents and encouraging them to identify solutions to modify a resident’s environment or the task itself, further empowers them to adopt an age-friendly mindset and help create a more age-friendly campus and culture at Beatitudes.

Rooted in occupational therapy ideals, Success Matters takes a holistic mind-body-spirit approach to aging, working with residents and staff to promote health and wellness. (The program won a 2017 Innovative Health and Wellness Program Award from LeadingAge Arizona.)

Embracing Adaptive Ideas in All Areas

SimulAge was launched when Assisted Living Dining Supervisor Suzanne Lewis approached Meyer, looking for ideas on how to make dining more accessible for a resident with tremors and low vision. The two worked together to successfully introduce weighted and swivel cutlery, as well as colored plates with raised sides, which prompted Lewis to inquire about organizing a training for her staff on various adaptive ideas for the dining venue.

SimulAge dining exercise
Dining servers experience what it’s like to dine with various limiting conditions.
Photo courtesy of Beatitudes Campus.

Rather than simply teach the staff about adaptive ideas, we considered the value of giving them an opportunity to experience a variety of these age-related conditions firsthand while dining, to empower them to better understand a resident’s experience and create a more age-friendly environment. Reflecting on the limitations of some dementia-simulation experiences, which can leave participants with a doom-and-gloom impression that older adults are a collection of debilitating ailments, we worked to create a staff training that would paint a brighter picture of aging.

While aging simulations are no longer a rarity, what sets SimulAge apart from other programs is the one-on-one attention each department at Beatitudes Campus receives. Whether training housekeepers, caregivers, health care center staff, life enrichment, dining services, or the board of directors, SimulAge provides experiences tailored to the jobs performed by those individuals.

We have trained more than 140 Beatitudes Campus employees using the SimulAge experience. The training encourages employees to start by describing what they are already doing to better serve residents, allowing them to build on their current level of expertise. Following SimulAge, staff engage in a discussion about the various conditions they experienced during the training and how each of us, in every department, can help create an age-friendly campus where residents live their lives to the fullest.

By demystifying conditions associated with aging, SimulAge allows employees to be comfortable with whatever situation they encounter. This, in turn, helps them recognize and preserve the dignity of each individual they serve. For example, learning how to best speak with people who have hearing loss, or vision limitations, can go a long way in putting everyone at ease, allowing relationships to develop that might otherwise be limited by communication challenges. While not idealizing the aging process, an effort is made to see beyond perceived limitations to more fully grasp what it means to be older.

SimulAge Home Companion
The SimulAge program asks participants to try sorting
pills with equipment that mimics macular
degeneration and cognitive impairment. Photo courtesy
of Beatitudes Campus.

Consciously Looking for Solutions

“Helping Hands” handouts provide job-specific lists of warning signs, what they might mean, and what can be done to remedy a situation. For example, housekeeping might see clutter or papers piling up, which may reflect changes in thinking, vision or finger dexterity. Depending on the source of the problem, a remedy could be as simple as providing tools to remedy low vision (which refers to diminished visual acuity that cannot be corrected with lenses, often including impaired visual fields due to conditions like glaucoma, macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy), or a more complicated equation might include bringing additional help into the home.

An emphasis on staff communication and empowerment encourages employees at every level to consciously look for and find solutions to ageist barriers, embedded in our own internal biases and within the physical community.

Reactions to the training have been overwhelmingly positive, and amidst the good-natured laughter that accompanies donning low-vision goggles or spongy neuropathy shoes, the tone of each SimulAge training tends to be equal parts team building, reflection and brainstorming. Housekeeping Supervisor Nancy Cortez notes that in addition to her team members having a better understanding of residents’ experiences and challenges, “morale has been improving, as the housekeeping staff feel more valued and more involved in the whole picture of resident care.”

Beatitudes Campus President and CEO Michelle Just says, “SimulAge has been a very valuable experience for our employees, as they learn about different issues older adults face and how to better understand unique challenges that can accompany aging. The SimulAge program is teaching us that the collective experience proves most valuable in working together to address challenges in ageism that might otherwise go unnoticed.”

Josephine Levy is resource navigator, and Jessica Meyer is director, for the Success Matters™ program at Beatitudes Campus, Phoenix, AZ. Both are former teachers who bring classroom experience to their current roles.