In a traditional senior care setting, schedules are a way of life. There are specific times for when to get up, when to go to bed, when to have activities, exercise and have meals. For seniors who spent their entire adulthood living independently and making their own choices, the cultural shock can be considerable.The Importance of Elder Empowerment

It doesn’t have to be that way, as new emerging models in senior care show. “Just because someone is older does not mean that they can’t or shouldn’t make as many decisions for themselves as possible,” says Deborah Wiegand, Director of Operations for The Green House Project. Read more about the importance of elder empowerment and the focus on person-centered care provided by the Green House Project.

An Elder-Directed Environment

Green House communities, which follow the model established by The Green House Project, buck the traditional senior care model by putting elder decision-making at the heart of all they do. “We push the envelope by looking at the elder voice and learning how to access it, and also by determining what mechanics need to put in place to ensure the model is elder-directed,” says Wiegand.

The Green House model facilitates elder-directed lifestyles by creating a more intimate, residential environment. Each Green House home accommodates between 10 and 12 elders, as opposed to the environment of a traditional senior living model that typically has 100 residents or more.

“In an environment that accommodates 120 people, it’s really hard to get to know deeply who the residents are,” Wiegand says. “But when you have a home of 10 or 12 elders, the process becomes easier.”

“Deep knowing is an important part of advocating for elder directedness.”

Defining Elder Empowerment

Elder empowerment doesn’t come merely from giving seniors choices. It comes from ensuring that the elders themselves are determining what those choices should be. Wiegand emphasizes that it’s not about “allowing” seniors to do something, as that implies the need to seek permission from an authority dictating what they can and cannot do.

She confesses to feeling frustrated when she hears the word “allow” in conversations about eldercare choices. “When I think about someone who is 90 or 95 years old living in senior care, to use the word ‘allow’ seems to bring in an almost infantile mindset,” she says.

“As a society, I think we need to become conscious of our language and recognize that the people living in senior care settings are our moms and our dads,” she continues. “They’ve had many experiences and so much wisdom to impart to us. To say that ‘we allow’ our elders to do something diminishes who they are and what they should be able to do in their lives.”

The Power of Normal

Elder empowerment starts with the basics of life — something as simple as determining when to wake up in the morning and what to have for breakfast. At Green House communities, residents do this every day. They help set the menus in consensus with the other residents. They can also share recipes and describe how they prefer their meals to be cooked. If they want to go outside, they don’t have to wait for someone to take them. There’s a secure garden or patio right outside their door.

Being empowered also means having meaningful conversations, instead of just pre-planned activities. It means having the opportunity to set the agenda for their day. Making routine decisions helps elders feel a sense of normalcy that is not often found in traditional senior care settings, says Weigand.

“The power of ‘normal’ has a tremendous impact,” she explains. “When we normalize the environment, we get to a place where we can change the mindset of families and how they look at loved ones in a nursing home. We can also change the mindset of the staff who are working there so that empowerment among elders is something that is celebrated and becomes a way of life.”

About the Author

Diane Franklin is a freelance writer and editor who writes regularly about senior living and healthcare. She has also written hundreds of articles for business and trade publications, including leading magazines for the credit union and retail paint industries.

In what ways would you suggest elder empowerment be achieved in traditional senior care? Share your thoughts and stories with us in the comments below.

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