What is healthy aging? That was the question posed by Walter Leutz, associate professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, at last week’s Social Issue Talk on Healthy Aging.
Responses from the audience varied from “having a purpose” and “being social and engaged” to “living a full life” and “having a positive attitude.” Interestingly, no one said, “avoiding disease.”
Our definition of healthy aging has changed over the years. According to Leutz, the original view of the term “healthy aging” was the absence of illness or disability. Today, some studies see healthy aging focused more on “going and doing,” which is based on not only the ability to go and do things, but also having something meaningful to do.
As Leutz stated in an Issue Brief for the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative, healthy aging “recognizes that even people with chronic illnesses and disabilities can feel and be seen by others as ‘healthy’ if they are able to be resilient in the face of their medical and functional issues and stay involved with friends, family and community, have a purpose and find meaning in life, feel safe and secure, eat and drink healthily, stay physically active, and be proactive about their health.”
So, how do we as a community support older adults in achieving this new vision?
At the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, we’ve made healthy aging our mission. We fund programs in Massachusetts and Rhode Island that not only support older adults in improving their health but also empower them to “go and do” through purposeful engagement opportunities and greater awareness of and access to programs and services.
For the last five years, we’ve also partnered with Root Cause’s Social Innovation Forum to select Social Innovators in Healthy Aging and help them grow their programs over time. The organizations that have received this distinction have included Hearth, whose outreach program focuses on ending elder homelessness; Generations Incorporated, which trains older adults to mentor children in literacy; Massachusetts Senior Action Council, which empowers low- and moderate-income seniors through civic engagement; and The LGBT Aging Project, which brings culturally competent care to LGBT older adults and caregivers.
This year’s Social Innovator in Healthy Aging, Ethos AgeWell West Roxbury, promotes the development of an age-friendly community and the creation of successful aging-in-place strategies in West Roxbury, which is the Boston neighborhood with the highest concentration and absolute number of elders. AgeWell takes a multi-faceted approach to healthy aging by helping older adults connect with each other, the community and to available resources, such as transportation. The organization also sets itself apart by rallying the community to help seniors in need through home repairs, snow shoveling (see March 4, 2013 blog) and other services.
We see strong momentum for healthy aging in Massachusetts and we’re proud of the great work our grantees, Social Innovators and partners are doing to advance the cause. This Social Issue Talk made clear that healthy aging comes in many forms, but Leutz left us with an overarching goal for older adults and, really, for us all. “May we be safe, healthy, happy and at ease.”
Stacey Mann is the communications officer for the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, sponsoring partner of the Social Innovation Forum’s Healthy Aging: Vibrant Lifestyles for Adults Ages 60+ Issue Track.