Educational Activities Lead to Wellness in Older Adults in Care Facilities Such as Retirement Homes/Nursing Homes
Do Educational Activities Lead to Wellness in Older Adults in Alternative Care Facilities
The United States is experiencing a fundamental shift in demographics as the percentage of elderly citizens continues to increase. More and more people will become residents of nursing homes, retirement communities, skilled nursing facilities and other alternative residential arrangements in the future, and much remains unclear about what the impact of this transition from a gainfully employed lifestyle to one without such outside activities might be on this segment of the population. To this end, this study seeks to determine the extent to which educational activities contribute to wellness in older adults in alternative care facilities such as nursing homes and retirement communities through a qualitative review of the scholarly and peer-reviewed literature.
Purpose and Potential Benefits
The purpose of this study is to determine the extent, if any, to which educational activities in nursing homes and retirement communities contribute to wellness among the elderly residents. The potential benefits to be derived from such a study are profound and are discussed further below.
A. Background and Overview. The 21st century is going to witness some profound changes in the human condition, particularly in the United States. According to Alan C. Weinstein (1996), “With the ‘graying’ of the baby-boomer generation, the United States is on the verge of an unprecedented demographic revolution that will see the proportion of elderly increase to twenty percent of our population by the year 2050” (133). Likewise, in his essay, “The Shape of Things to Come: Global Aging in the Twenty-First Century,” Peter G. Peterson (2002) reports that, “The world stands on the threshold of a social transformation — even a revolution — with few parallels in humanity’s past…. Perhaps two-thirds of all people who have ever reached the age of 65 are alive today” (189). As late as the 1970s, uncontrolled population growth appeared to represent a major threat to the world’s long-term survival. Books such as Paul Ehrlich’s best seller, the Population Bomb, helped to fuel concerns at home and abroad about the unrelenting growth of humanity of a world of finite size. Things have changed, though, and more recently, demographers have projected a dramatic deceleration in global population growth and an equally dramatic aging of societies all over the world. Indeed, as Peterson points out, “In 1970, the future was crowded with babies. Today, it is crowded with elders” (190). The fundamental shifts in demographics that have taken place over the past several decades may have surprised demographers, but there were other surprises in store for researchers as well. For example, previous studies of later life that were conducted prior to the 1960’s indicated a great deal of dissatisfaction with mandatory retirement, along with difficulty with adjusting to retirement, especially for “the old, the poor, and those who like their work…” (Graebner 1980:220). Disengagement theory was advanced in the 1960’s by sociologists and gerontologists; this concept provided elderly people with the permission they believed they needed to withdraw from the workforce and the social roles associated with work (Luken & Vaughn 2003:145).
Still others grew concerned that separating the routines of work and leisure would result in the devaluation of work and the relegation of leisure as being an unpleasant experience; however, some gerontologists viewed this situation as only being temporary and argued that future generations of Americans, raised in an era of economic abundance, consumption, and leisure, would intuitively already know how to recreate during their twilight years (Luken & Vaughn 146). Unfortunately, just as with the inaccurate predictions about demographics, these early estimations of how elderly people would readily transition into their old age have simply not panned out in the real world. There has been an enormous increase in the number of older people resorting to nursing homes, retirement communities and other alternative housing arrangements for elders, but there does not appear to have been a concomitant increase in the amount of attention being paid to their unique needs during this period of their lives, particularly as regards education; these issues are discussed further below.
B. Nursing Homes, Retirement Communities and Quality of Care Issues. The rapid increase in the number of elderly being experienced in the United States would likely place an inordinate amount of stress on any society in the form of spiraling demands on publicly-funded retirement programs, healthcare providers, and social welfare institutions. In modern American society, these demands are being further exacerbated because the growth in the elderly population has been accompanied by several significant changes in the fundamental social structure. According to Weinstein (1996), “The most basic of these changes has occurred in the structure of our families and communities. just a few decades ago, the vast majority of our citizens were part of traditional nuclear and extended families residing in relatively stable communities, an arrangement that offered numerous advantages to the elderly” (133).
Because families moved infrequently during this period in American history, the elderly enjoyed a lifestyle where they were generally surrounded by relatives, friends, and familiar institutions such as churches, clubs, and various organizations that provided them with both the increasing levels of assistance often required during the aging process and opportunities for them to feel they were still a useful and needed part of their community. Whereas once the old, the ill, and the dying were cared for within extended families, Allor (1994) notes that more and more senior citizens are electing, voluntarily or otherwise, for alternative arrangements such as congregate-living residences, elder apartments, nursing homes, and hospice facilities in nuclear-family residential areas. This process has been successful only in terms of marginalizing those who could least afford it: “The segregation of American society by income, by ethnicity, by race, and by generation has been horrifyingly successful in producing both social isolation and cultural banality” (Allor 437). While more and more elders are residing in nursing homes, a growing number are also seeking out alternative living arrangements in the form of retirement communities, skilled nursing facilities and other nontraditional living arrangements (Weinstein 134).
Based on current growth projections for the elderly population, particularly for those over the age of 85 years, Schneider and Guralnik estimate nursing home costs in the U.S. could increase between 2.7 and 4.5 times current costs in real terms between now and 2040; however, if the current relative mix between those living at home and receiving living assistance and those in nursing homes today, compared to the potential needs for institutional help in the future is considered, the situation could become much worse than these authors predict. Today, the elderly are primarily the parents of more children than the baby boomers as parents are having. People with fewer children are going to face smaller likelihood of getting help from family members in dealing with functional limitations than those who have more. The baby boomers almost certainly will face an increasing problem in this regard (Schneider & Guralnik 2338).
Today, approximately 40% of nursing home costs in the United States are paid through the Medicaid program, a funding arrangement that makes improvements in the system are the more complicated. According to William Hovey’s analysis, “The Worst of Both Worlds: Nursing Home Regulation in the United States” (2000), “Government regulators of nursing home care face an even more difficult than usual task in balancing cost and quality concerns, because unlike most areas of health care in the United States, government payers (primarily Medicaid) fund nearly three-fourths of all nursing home care in the U.S.” (43). As a result, the already difficult task of ensuring quality long-term care is all the harder, because the same government entities responsible for ensuring quality will be forced to fund the needed quality improvements; this process is what Deborah Stone (1997) termed the “cost-quality tradeoff.”
Furthermore, it is difficult to improve the quality of nursing home care without incurring increased costs because the majority of operating costs in most nursing facilities is related to staffing. According to Joan Fitzgerald’s essay, “Better-Paid Caregivers, Better Care” (2001):
Nobody is happy with the nation’s nursing homes. Too many patients are receiving substandard care. Workers, particularly nurse’s aides who provide the majority of direct care, suffer from low wages, lack of benefits, understaffing, inadequate training, and limited career opportunities. Families are often appalled at how their loved ones are treated. Owners and managers struggle with government reimbursements that do not allow higher pay or better treatment. Clearly, the $96.2-billion-a-year nursing home industry is failing its residents and workers” (30).
Because the majority of nursing home bills are paid by Medicaid or Medicare, governments at all levels are inextricably involved in this problem; however, the current administration’s tax-and-budget program precludes a national strategy that would allow a substantive upgrade to nursing homes and provide the training required to professionalize the caregivers who work in them. Further, the quality of care that might be expected to be received in any given nursing home varies depending on the state involved. For example, Massachusetts and California have made recent improvements by upgrading care quality and professionalizing care; by contrast, despite Florida’s large population of seniors and the beginning of a coalition of patients, families, and workers on behalf of better care, the state administration remains inflexible in their funding approach (Fitzgerald 30).
Nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities are unique among low-wage labor markets in that government, in effect, sets wages and career paths by setting reimbursement rates. Government also regulates the conditions of care and subsidizes training programs for nursing assistants and other paraprofessionals. Unlike other low-wage sectors, a broad-based, middle-class constituency for better wages and benefits potentially exists in the form of family members of nursing home residents. Therefore, there is a potential solution that benefits all the stakeholders by providing higher reimbursements together with tighter regulation and deliberate professionalization of the direct-care workforce; unfortunately, while some states have made some progress along these lines, resources remain scarce and many initiative have never got off the ground:
Though bits and pieces of this strategy are emerging in a few states, it is being blocked nationally by warped budgetary priorities and a failure of political imagination” (Fitzgerald 30). Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better: “Hospitals are increasingly discharging patients before they can care for themselves at home. The over-65 population will double between 2000 and 2030, while the traditional paraprofessional caregiver population, women aged 25 to 54, will decline by 7%” (Fitzgerald 31). In addition, the demand for nursing care is increasing dramatically, but the current labor market is providing better options than the low-paying, stressful job of nurse’s aide, resulting in an enormous shortage of qualified personnel in the nation’s nursing homes. In this regard, Hovey points out that, “Improving quality of care in nursing homes often means adding more staff, better qualified (hence more expensive) staff, or both. Doing so increases costs” (43). While there may be no magic bullet for these problems, there are some low-cost or free alternatives that can be used to improve the quality of care and life for nursing home and retirement community residents through the provision of educational opportunities which are discussed further below.
C. Effectiveness of Educational Activities on Wellness. Rowe and Kahn (1998) describe three characteristics of the successful aging process: 1) low probability of disease and disease-related disability, 2) high cognitive and physical functioning, and 3) active engagement with life. Rowe and Kahn (1987) first described successful aging solely in reference to the avoidance of disease and disability; however, based on the results of the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging (a $10 million, 10-year effort, by dozens of scientists) which they headed, based on an appreciation of the positive aspects of aging, the model was subsequently expanded. Thereafter, successful aging was regarded as embracing two additional components: 1) maintenance of high physical and cognitive functional capacity, and 2) active engagement in life. In sum, the avoidance of disability involves increased, rather than decreased, attention to preventive health care and health promotion in the later years, in part to “compress” morbidity; as a result, illness and disability comprise a much smaller portion of the last years of life (Rowe & Kahn 1998).
Maintaining physical and mental function also involves an accent on both prevention and health promotion; this aspect of the successful-aging framework presupposes that:
a) Fears of loss of function are often greatly exaggerated;
b) Much functional loss can indeed be prevented; and,
Many functional losses can be regained (Fadem & Minkler 2002:229).
Finally, the third aspect of successful aging, the continuing active engagement with life, was advanced as a direct response to the earlier and largely discredited “disengagement theory” described by Cumming and Henry (1961). The disengagement theory conceptualized late life as a time of mutual withdrawal and letting go, during which individuals gradually relinquished roles and responsibilities while society prepared to replace its older members. In contrast to disengagement theory, the third component of Rowe and Kahn’s (1998) conceptualization of successful aging requires the maintenance of “close relationships with others, and remaining involved in activities that are meaningful and purposeful, are important for well-being throughout the life course” (46).
Education is a highly valued commodity in the United States, and this value has traditionally extended to the elderly as well (Acher 1990). Providing educational opportunities for senior citizens is congruent with generally accepted and socially approved needs: “They [educational opportunities] are an inherent part of a lifestyle society encourages. Moreover, satisfaction of such needs is a good that society itself desires. Society as a whole benefits when any of its members is educated or provided with medical care. And if certain members of society are educated or provided with medical care at private expense, government need not bear those costs” (142). Indeed, studies have shown time and again that the more active and engaged with life elderly people remain, the longer they live and the more mental faculties they retain in the process.
Seniors have also been shown to be capable of continuing to learn and be creative well throughout their lives. Past studies have thoroughly documented age-related variations in the quantity (or productivity) of creative work. According to Adams-Price, “Productivity can be measured by counting the number of works that an individual produces during a certain span of time, such as a decade. In general, productivity increases rapidly with age to a peak, often around age 40” (1998:23). Thereafter, productivity decreases slowly through the rest of the individual’s life span, frequently continuing to decline until productivity is a mere half of its former peak rate; in fact, this general association between productivity and age has been found in both artistic and scientific fields, and across different cultures (Simonton 1990). The precise location of the peak and the rate of change in productivity both relate to the field of endeavor involved; for example, in some fields (such as pure mathematics), the productivity peak is reached fairly early (e.g., age 30 years) and productivity rapidly declines with age to one quarter of the peak performance level. By contrast, in fields of endeavor such as history and philosophy, there is a much later age peak for productivity (e.g., age 50) with small decreases being experienced beyond the peak (Adams-Price 23). This author emphasizes that it is important to point out that productivity of creative work declines asymptotically; certainly, there are countless instances of creative work by people in their eighties and older. In addition, there are large individual differences in the productivity changes with age. For example, McLeish (1976) identified a number of “Ulysseans” who continued to demonstrate high productivity levels throughout their old age.
Opportunities for learning need not be confined to formal settings. For example, elderly volunteers who provide services in hospitals have found that not only do they help others, but, also their own health is improved in the process; in these situations, Ebersole and Hess note that elderly volunteers “act as foster grandparents, tutor ill children, and write letters for or visit with ailing elders. Johns Hopkins Hospital has had such a volunteer program for 60 years and finds the services of elders invaluable” (727). These authors also report that senior citizens can provide a valuable service as paid or unpaid workers in nursing homes. In this regard, Ebersole and Hess suggest that legislation that would train and pay older people who may wish to work in nursing homes would be desirable. “Older volunteers have been used extensively in nursing homes without pay,” they say. “One concern is the tendency for older adults to become depressed when constantly exposed to the limitations of their age peers” (727). To help overcome this constraint, the authors recommend that a consistent coordinating individual be assigned; this component is essential to the success of such programs and may produce a more rewarding experience for both the elder provider and the recipient of such services (Ebersole & Hess 727).
Enlisting the assistance of higher educational institutions to provide instructional services for elderly residents may be problematic, though, based on past efforts. In his attempts to develop an outreach program that would help keep seniors engaged and active, for instance, Marc Freedman (1999) reports that his experiences attempting to secure senior training for his initiative, the “Experience Corps,” were initially less than productive: “Most [colleges] had been burned before by volunteer programs in which individuals showed up sporadically, requiring more work than they were worth. The last thing these educational institutions needed — we were warned — was a bunch of older people who required baby-sitting when the schools were already understaffed and overwhelmed” (emphasis added) (Freedman & Harris 1999:193). The Experience Corps did manage to receive the training they needed, and the results were impressive. “Indeed, the inner-city public schools we were working in — like so many similar institutions around the country — were so desperate for responsible human beings to help that the Experience Corps members were embraced from practically the moment they entered the building” (Freedman & Harris 193). This approach to combining learning experiences for elders while providing them with an opportunity to contribute to their communities was clearly a win-win situation. “In reality, so overwhelming was the need on the part of schools that we found ourselves with considerable margin for error in implementing Experience Corps — operating in an environment that might best be described as ‘forgiving,'” they say (Freedman & Harris 193). In actuality, that margin for error turned out to be an advantage, though, because the senior found themselves working furiously to get this new initiative launched; the authors note that for budgetary reasons, the Corporation for National Service had to spend the money they had received by the end of the 1995 federal fiscal year) (Freedman & Harris 193). The results of this initiative were impressive; the Experience Corps volunteers helped meet these schools’ needs in a variety of ways: “To start, Experience Corps members did what many of the Foster Grandparents I had met were doing: They reduced the ratio of adults to students in the classroom and in the school. As one teacher in Port Arthur explained, this wasn’t rocket science: ‘When there is only one of me and thirty kids, it is hard to get around to everybody’s needs'”; this observation was heard repeatedly from teachers at the five pilot projects (Freedman & Harris 194). By encouraging these senior volunteers in this endeavor, everyone benefited. Not only did the senior volunteers receive a great deal of positive feedback and gratification through this rewarding experience, the students and teachers alike were beneficiaries: “In fact, many of the retired teachers who signed up to participate in Experience Corps joined for precisely this reason. After years of frustration at not being able to give their own struggling students the personal attention they desperately needed, these educators came to Experience Corps with a desire finally to rectify this situation” (194).
Peer Counseling. Peer counseling training is an important service that seniors can provide. For example, a newsletter from a long-term care facility posted in settings where senior citizens gather or reside, explaining various volunteer activities (such as entertaining, office work, transportation aide, cafeteria attendants, activity assistants, workshop assistants, boutique salespeople, gardeners, and friendly visitors) would be a useful method of recruiting volunteers (Ebersole & Hess 727). A number of such alternative care facilities have already implemented peer counseling training programs in which volunteers learn interviewing skills and develop their ability to deal with patients who are lonely, depressed, or dying. “These volunteer roles have potential for maintaining or elevating self-esteem of volunteers and patients and hold great potential for meeting the needs of many elderly. The older generation, often skeptical of professional counseling, will accept the help of peers” (Ebersole & Hess 727). An increasing number of peer counseling programs are appearing across the United States. These peer counselors train elderly residents to help other elders deal with the major transitions of life: relocation, death of a spouse, retirement, or other crises that take place during the process of aging. “Some counselors provide telephone counsel, and others go to the home or visit the institutionalized. The proviso is that the elder request help and the response be prompt. Some are based in churches, some are based in suicide prevention programs, and yet others make regular visits to retirement centers, senior centers, and institutions” (Ebersole & Hess 727).
Hoffman (1983) recommended that screening criteria be followed carefully in selecting peer counselors; this author determined that the ideal training period was a 2-hour class twice weekly for 5 weeks followed by a 10-week practicum. The students were placed in a number of agencies to provide services under the supervision of agency personnel. They identified themselves as volunteers rather than counselors and often helped their clients across several levels of care. Typically the peer counselor has a case load of two to six clients and performs functions such as listening, providing information and referral, telephone reassurance, counseling families and groups, and making home visits. Based on their understanding of the painful experiences of old age, they add a dimension of friendship and empathy to the counseling function. Nurses assist in identifying clients most likely to benefit from peer counseling (Ebersole & Hess 727).
Volunteer Training and Other Senior Roles. Training programs, supervision, and ongoing support are critical to the success of volunteer programs; the following considerations guide the development of successful volunteer programs:
Administrative support of volunteers;
Clearly determined goals for the program;
specific orientation program with printed support materials to give volunteers;
Buddy systems to orient and reinforce volunteer role and expectations;
Periodic evaluations and modifications as needs indicated by volunteer participants; and,
Determination of specific awards and rewards to sustain interest and involvement
Ebersole & Hess 727).
Seniors should also be encouraged to begin minimal participation in volunteer programs prior to work role discontinuation; this can provide a sense of continuity. There are certain identifiable steps in the full development of a role as a volunteer. Group involvement and group meetings will solidify and strengthen the identification with the volunteer role. Some people suggest that volunteering is an abuse and that individuals should be paid for what they do. Some of this thinking may be the outgrowth of a materialistic orientation that believes individual value is reflected in currency. Volunteers that have been contact believe the payment for their services is manifest through the enrichment they receive in their lives; some, such as the Foster Grandparents program, were found to be particularly rewarding in this regard (Ebersole & Hess 727).
Distance Learning Applications in Nursing Homes and Other Assisted Living Facilities. Given the ubiquity of computing in the Age of Information, it is not surprising to find high levels of computer literacy among the aging population. With the introduction of a wide range of distance learning programs by national, state and local providers, elderly residents in nursing homes and other assisted living facilities can continue their education as long as they want and are able. Studies have shown that older people who are college graduates are much more likely to already own a personal computer than their less well-educated counterparts; in fact, in 1995, 53% of the older people with a college degree reported owning a computer, while only 22% of the respondents with some college education reported owning a computer and just 7% of the older people who had not completed high school owned a computer in November 1995 (Nussbaum, Pecchioni, Robinson & Thompson 2000:79).
While these respective rates could reasonably be expected to have increased commensurately with the concomitant increase in Internet use generally, elders were found to use computers and the Internet in fairly traditional ways. For example, the most common use of the computer was word processing, with more than 80% of older people reported using their computers for word processing, 60% to play games, 54% to manage their personal finances, 34% for desktop publishing, and 28% to access an online service. While just 17% of all senior computer owners reported using an online service to access the Internet or send e-mail, 38% of those with a college degree reported being online. It should be pointed out that in 1998, only approximately 37% of all households in the United States reported being connected to the Internet.
Adler (1996) pointed out that one of the major reasons reported by elderly people for using personal computers is the ability to send and receive e-mail. This ability to communicate with their children and grandchildren, many of whom live in another city, is seen by many as a significant advantage of the personal computer. Likewise, a number of seniors have reported that access to the Internet allows them to obtain financial information that is superior to and more convenient than other sources of financial information. “Older women in particular find the availability of many different newspapers to be a significant advantage of going online. For many older people, the ability to gain access to health information is a factor that increases their likelihood of going online” (Nussbaum et al. 2000:79). It was also common in many older households to find that one person was the primary computer user and his or her partner may not use the computer at all. Generally speaking, it was the man who was the computer user and the woman who was found to be less likely to use the computer; however, previous work experience also appeared to account for much of this gender difference. Further, many older women reported they would be more interested in purchasing and using a computer if they believed they would have access to computer-training courses (Nussbaum et al. 2000).
Today, the adult education community has recognized the potential of technology to provide new approaches to the delivery of educational services and to accommodate the special needs of adult learners. In fact, many of the same processes that are driving innovations in the delivery of adult education systems are being used by senior citizens (Russell 1999:28). There are a number of organizations exploring the Internet and World Wide Web to identify new potential and capabilities to raise the quality and accessibility of adult learning opportunities for their membership. These organizations may be characterized as “online learning communities,” because they have sought to meet a diversity of educational and informational needs, and have used technology to provide efficient and affordable learning opportunities to the members of their communities. Through this process, the potential audience for adult education has expanded, and in a sense, technology has begun to provide not only a means of communication, but a basis for community (i.e., membership in community is conferred by virtue of using the technology). “Simply put, people recognize a common need or interest, and create an online learning community around it” (Russell 28). At the same time, these organizations also show evidence of an understanding of the special characteristics of adult learning, and the necessity to provide instruction that will engage the adult learner. While their principal purpose is not the delivery of adult education, they have still constructed learning delivery systems that effectively combine elements of the distance learning, and traditional models of instruction which are targeted to a wide variety of adults with differing skills, and abilities (Russell 28).
The application of technology, though, frequently clouds the traditional distinctions among formal, nonformal, and informal education; nevertheless, the learning delivery systems employed by these organizations provide new methods in the manner in which the adult education community might consider the delivery of instruction, the definition of a learning event, and how adult learning itself might be conceptualized (Russell 28). In this regard, senior citizens are beginning to enjoy the benefits of mixing educational opportunities with their online experience as well. SeniorNet, a non-profit system of community-based learning centers and online services targeted to members 55 and older (http://www.seniornet.org) serves as an example of an online learning community. In addition to conforming with most of the features of the model outlined above, it shows evidence of two major indicators which are important to adult education:
1) Effectiveness in mediating between its members and technology to provide access to tools for learning, and 2) a demonstrated capability to provide learning experiences that are transformative, rewarding, accommodating of learning differences and inclusive of life experiences (Russell 29).
According to Nussbaum and his colleagues:
SeniorNet is a nonprofit organization with over 140 learning centers and over 27,000 members across the United States. SeniorNet members are 50 years old and older and dedicated to providing other older adults access to computer technology and computer training in a variety of areas, including desktop publishing, word processing, Internet access, e-mailing, and financial planning. SeniorNet is the result of a research project funded in 1986 by the Markle Foundation to determine whether telecommunications and computers enhance the lives of older adults. Since then, elderly SeniorNet volunteers have taught over 100,000 adults 50 years old and older a variety of computer skills. (2000:78)
Besides increased training opportunities and access, SeniorNet also provides two discussion groups that seniors can access through America Online (keyword: SeniorNet) and the World Wide Web. These discussions address a wide variety of senior-specific topics and are open to the public; there is no membership requirement for SeniorNet and all older people are welcome to participate. The discussion boards are called the SeniorNet RoundTables and can be found at http://www.seniornet.org (Nussbaum et al. 78). According to Russell (1999), “When SeniorNet was founded in 1986, the idea that older citizens might be users of technology sounded far-fetched, and the prevailing stereotype of computer users did not include many people over 35″; however, in just a few years of operation, SeniorNet had grown to the extent that by 1998, that New York Times commented that “numerous SeniorNet members are in their 70s and 80s, and those are the instructors” (Russell 28).
The SeniorNet founder, Mary Furlong, stated in 1986 that she “did not set out with a defined goal, a set of blueprints, and a teacher’s manual” (SeniorNet Promotional Flyer 1996). Rather, inspired by her firm belief that older citizens would be enthusiastic users of technology, she established workshops in church basements, senior centers, nursing homes, and local schools, the traditional homes of adult basic education programs; however, Furlong also added the element of computer literacy. “She says that the organization rose out of her desire to look at community, rather than technology, and discovered how technology could support a sense of community,” Russell adds. SeniorNet’s original purpose was to “provide older adults education for, and access to, computer technology to enhance their lives, and enable them to share their knowledge and wisdom.” The relentless increase in the membership of the organization has confirmed Furlong’s original concept. Russell reports that by 1999, the 100,000 participant organization has grown to include 140 community-based centers, plus a separate online SeniorNet network comprised of people using and sharing resources, activities, and services, including a highly-touted technology help center.
In 1999, SeniorNet claimed 85,000 older adults have been introduced to computer technologies through SeniorNet programs conducted in SeniorNet community-based learning centers nationwide (Russell 29); by contrast, today, the organization reports that it “has benefited millions of seniors since its founding in 1986; supports over 240 Learning Centers throughout the U.S. And in other countries; publishes a quarterly newsletter and a variety of instructional materials; offers discounts on computer-related and other products and services; holds regional conferences and collaborates in research on older adults and technology” (About SeniorNet 2005:2). According to their organizational literature:
SeniorNet members learn and teach others to use computers and communications technologies to accomplish a variety of tasks. They learn to touch up photos and send and receive them in email, to desktop publish anything from a newsletter to an autobiography, manage personal and financial records, communicate with others across the country and the world and serve their communities. SeniorNet members share a desire to continue learning and a willingness to contribute their knowledge to others.
SeniorNet continues to receive a significant amount of local, regional, and national community support; for instance, companies such as Intuit, a software company, provide free tax help for low income families; 3 Com has just donated 56K modems to SeniorNet learning centers across the country and IBM provides discounts to the group’s members. Other sponsors include major telecommunications companies such as; Ameritech and at&T; technology companies like Intel and U.S. Robotics, and corporate sponsors such as American Express. According to Russell, the organization enjoys support from virtually all quarters of the community: “The learning centers are staffed by volunteers, and supported by Parks and Recreation committees, police departments, local school groups, telephone companies, and private individuals” (29). The group received a coveted federal “Point of Light” Award for its efforts in bringing educational opportunities to senior citizens wherever they resided and plans for sustaining the organization include a new for-profit branch, and continued outreach programs (Russell 29).
These innovations in the manner in which educational services – particularly at the university level – were being delivered, originally caused some observers to question whether the process would degrade or otherwise diminish the “university experience” for their participants. Technology, it was said, would destroy the very foundations of education in America if allowed to proceed unabated; of course, this has not been the case at all and such innovations have actually enabled more and more people to have a “university experience” by expanding the milieu in which these services are delivered. This is a particularly important point for senior citizens who may have limited mobility or access to transportation; equally important, it allows them to continue to pursue areas of interest that they may not have had time for the first time around. According to Mills and Tait (1999) distance learning programs, rather than displacing language and thought, have the potential to help create the university culture for anyone who might be interested enough to want one:
Technology has not only supported, but has facilitated and influenced teaching and learning for tertiary off-campus students. Further, approaches to teaching so-called ‘distance’ students have influenced approaches to on-campus teaching. It is possible, for instance, that audio and video teleconferencing may help ‘restore’ oral language to more university students, while particularly providing access for those most obviously deprived of such communication: the off-campus learners (emphasis added) (152).
Clearly, senior citizens who reside in nursing homes, retirement communities and other assisted living facilities can continue their educational pursuits if: 1) they have the desire; 2) the have the physical and cognitive ability; and 3) they have the resources. The first two are a matter for the Almighty and the individual to work out for themselves; however, the latter is the responsibility of all of American society to ensure that senior citizens – wherever they may reside – continue to have the opportunity to learn and mature, even as they grow older and eventually less productive. Education is a lifelong pursuit and is not something that stops with the receipt of a diploma or certificate; senior citizens who continue to learn enjoy longer lives and better physical health, while maintaining their cognitive faculties longer. Taken together, providing educational opportunities for senior citizens in nursing homes, retirement communities and other assisted living facilities should no longer be regarded as a luxury, but rather as a fundamental component of a complete lifestyle.
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