09:59am Monday 20 January 2020

Getting older, but getting better

Co-sponsored by the Transdisciplinary Area of Excellence in Sustainable Communities, the Institute for Intergenerational Studies and the Department of Social Work in the College of Community and Public Affairs, the session at the University Downtown Center focused on three studies of aging populations:

• Healthy Aging and Productive Engagement in Later Life in the U.S. and China, presented by Ada Mui, professor, Columbia University School of Social Work
• Older Adults as Primary and Co-Caregivers of Grandchilden in India, presented by Denise Burnette, professor, Columbia University School of Social Work
• Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in US: Intergenerational Trauma and Resiliency, presented by Youjung Lee, assistant professor, Department of Social Work, Binghamton University, and recipient of a TAE seed grant in July 2013

Everyone knows the population is aging, said Mui, who showed photos of the world’s oldest woman who lived to be 122, as well as others who had returned to school as octogenarians, nonagenarians and even centenarians. “That’s called healthy aging, living life to the fullest,” she said.

The secret of a long life, she added, “is being meaningfully engaged and being productive, active and socially active. Use it or lose it.”
Mui, who has conducted research on the contributions of older adults as volunteers, caregivers, employers and learners, said their productive role in society can also calculate into dollars – and that brings a new perspective and vision to older adults.

“From a human capital perspective, an aging population represents resources to address societal needs,” she said. “The active engagement of older adults can enhance and maintain their physical, mental and cognitive health. The societal model is productive aging.”

After reviewing a number of innovations in volunteer programs involving older adults, Mui spoke of the Phone Angel Program that targets family caregivers in New York City’s Chinese community. “Forty percent of the older Chinese immigrant population in New York City is depressed,” she said. “The predictors of higher levels of depression in this population are poor health, high stress, dissatisfaction with family, a perceived generation gap, lack of social support and social isolation.”

Mui mobilized Chinese immigrant elders to work as phone angels, providing phone support to caregivers. The results were promising, she said. “After six months, 100 percent of the volunteers felt happier serving others, 83 percent developed a better understanding of their own emotions, 100 percent developed better communication skills, 72 percent had better family relationships, 100 percent had a stronger sense of purpose and 83 percent had an enlarged social circle of friends.”

The phone angels felt they had gained control in their lives. “We can empower every community to do this kind of work,” Mui said. “Older adults can be educated and empowered to meet the critical needs of their own community.”

Burnette profiled older adults caring for young kin in India.

Her study rationale: that as families adapt to changing conditions they affect society. The challenge is to minimize risk and maximize benefits for families and their members.

Taking globalization and modernization into account, Burnette talked about income inequality, gender inequality and age inequality, noting that India experiences profound levels of inequality in all of these areas. “Age inequality is increasing now,” she said, “not just in India but in developing countries. Colleagues have to retire at 59 where I do my work in India, when they still have lots of life left to live.”

These issues affect the family, individuals, opportunities, labor and environmental degradation, she added. “Demographically, if there are very high birth and mortality rates, the population is young. If they are low, the population is old. So we have an aging population all over the world, and it’s aging faster in developing countries than developed countries.”

Looking specifically at grandparents caring for grandchildren in India, Burnette found that the migration of people in that country has left grandparents caring for young children as working-age people leave to look for work, jobs and education. In India, only 1.2 percent of people aged 50+ care for at least one child, but that’s 4.1 million people caring for their grandchildren.

“Caregivers are most likely to be female, older, less educated, unmarried, urban and higher income, but they are in worse health status, have comparable levels of functioning, with lower levels of quality of life, higher depression and lower life satisfaction,” she said. “The implications are to develop policies and programs that target migrants, older adults, women, children and families, including primary care screening of health, mental health and community based screening.”

Lee also looked at grandparents raising their grandchildren, but in the Broome County area.

“What I observed in Broome County is the number of grandparents raising grandchildren is rising significantly,” she said. “And many of the children have experienced trauma firsthand.

“Children in unstable family environments are likely to experience chronically high levels of stress that test their ability to cope, known as toxic stress,” she said. “Grandparents raising grandchildren not only provide crucial care for children, but also maintain family unity and offer continuity in the children’s support network.”

Research shows that students raised by grandparents have more emotional problems and behavioral issues, Lee said. “Custodial grandparents are associated with poorer well-being, limited resources and higher parenting stress, and they tend to have lower physical, social and mental health,” she said. “However, they tend to have more life satisfaction than noncustodial grandparents and they find meaning in caregiving.”

Through interviews, Lee learned that, in the vast majority of cases, grandparents had assumed custodial responsibilities of their grandchildren due to parental incarceration, mental health or substance abuse issues. “They took children who were malnourished, abandoned or had experienced other traumatic events,” she said. “So there are multiple stressors impacting these custodial grandparents, who ignore their own health and aging issues, limit contact with friends and often become isolated.”

These grandchildren are also stressed due to the role conflict they experience having a grandparent being a parent. “It’s confusing for the children as well as the grandparent,” Lee said.

But there is an upside to the picture as well, Lee found. “Family resiliency can promote healing and growth,” she said. “I found a resilience. You learn with your children what not to do with your grandchildren. You become more educated and have more wisdom and have improved parenting skills. You have some humor and less guilt and the attitude of ‘I do the best I can, but if I don’t get there, it’s not totally my fault.’

“I couldn’t imagine not doing it,” they say. “They are my life and the reason I get up every day. I have a purpose to fight for.”

  Binghamton University, State University of New York


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