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Applying Person-Centered Best Practices to the Longevity Sector

Liz Seegert May 14, 2018

Health care is moving to a person-centered care model that focuses on a person’s wants, needs and preferences. It’s an approach than can work just as well in other areas of the longevity market.

The 65-plus demographic is broad and diverse. A cookie cutter approach to services, products, and innovations just won’t cut it, warn aging experts. Using lessons learned within the health care community and implementing a person-centered care approach in the broader longevity economy can lead to better and more successful products.

Our health system was trained to look at a person as a patient, and treat only the disease or condition, not the whole person. That’s changing as we realize factors like social determinants—housing, nutrition, economics, education and more—affect health and longevity, according to Gretchen Alkema, Vice President, Policy and Communications at The SCAN Foundation. Person-centered care moves away from the medical model to look at the entirety of the person, including culture, beliefs and goals.

“It’s all driven by who they are as a person,” said Alkema. “A person-centered approach guides all aspects of someone’s health care and support, and what’s realistic within that.” The same principles can drive other longevity innovations.

For older adults with complex care needs, Alkema said transportation, nutrition and supportive services that allow them to remain at home, are top priorities. It could mean helping families manage multiple physicians and medications, doing home modifications such as adding grab bars in the bathroom, or alleviating social isolation and loneliness. While a frail or ill customer may need assistance with mobility or getting dressed, a healthy and active person may be more interested in enhancing quality of life, through services such as grocery delivery or ride sharing.

A person-centered approach must also include the 40 million family caregivers, according to Lynn Feinberg, Senior Strategic Policy Advisor at AARP’s Public Policy Institute. The organization estimates that family members, friends and partners provide some $470 billion in unpaid care to an adult with limitations in daily activities each year. Families can provide valuable insight into what matters to the older adult, and how to best meet them. “There’s no template approach here,” she said.

Feinberg noted how some assisted living communities are moving in that direction. Some now set up a resident’s room with some recognition of who that person was in their earlier life, using personal mementos or creating a narrative about that person’s lived experience. It’s information that often comes from the families. “It allows the staff, from the driver of the van who takes them to medical appointments to the person serving meals in the dining room to really understand who that person was.”

Regardless of how and where aging boomers live, it’s critically important for whatever staff we interact with to understand the principles of respect and dignity for the person first, and avoid an institutionalized, template type approach to care or services, according to Feinberg. It starts with strong and consistent leadership, that filters down to mid-level supervisors, and may even require training or retraining of staff to be mindful of the individual as a human being and always respect their dignity.

Maintaining a person-centered mindset is critical as people become more dependent on others. Assistive technology and products like remote sensing devices can help support seniors who want to age in their own homes. While advances in technology may alleviate some of the worry for caregivers, gadgets and apps can seriously invade an older adult’s privacy, according to a recent study on older adults’ attitudes and perceptions of smart technologies.

“Technology can’t be just for the peace of mind of caregivers,” said Feinberg. “It also has to be acceptable to the older adult.”

The ultimate end users should be part of the product design, development and testing process. It’s important to learn an older adult’s preferences and attitudes about activities or services before providing them. Entrepreneurs must also take a person’s cultural traditions and rituals into account and find out what matters to them. “Otherwise they’re not going to use it, or use it incorrectly, or hide it,” Feinberg said.

Businesses that are savvier about customer service and human-centered design really get that, according to Alkema. However, many companies have blind spots about what it means to be older, or sick or alone. “It’s time to break that old narrative because we’re living in a totally new reality.”

Adopting person-centered care principles across the longevity market requires a level of sophistication that keeps things simple from the user perspective and is very clear about the problem you’re trying to solve. It starts by talking to the older adult and asking them what matters most.

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Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert is an independent health journalist based in New York City. She writes about aging, boomers, policy and related topics for online, print and broadcast media, and also co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

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