Aging at home: New project starts with community assets, not needs
Students tend to fret when they are “invited” to the principal’s office, and last April Tayler Nelson was no exception.
When she and nine other students at Richland Middle School in Richland Center, Wis. were invited to David Guy’s office, she wondered, “What are we in trouble for?”
Tayler Nelson, a Richland Middle School student, helps Ruby Hart, left, and Hellen Tenny, both of Richland Center, learn to use cell phones.
But instead of a rebuke, Guy had a request: could the students help older adults learn the digital technology that is so intuitive to teens, but so irritating to elders? And could the students decide how to do it themselves?
“We thought it would be a good idea to help mature adults use technology, but we had to figure out how to do it,” says Nelson, who has now graduated eighth grade. At the meeting, Steve Kohlstedt, Richland County agent for University of Wisconsin Extension, told the students that seniors can feel left out and isolated, especially in a rural area, and he challenged the students to figure out a way to reverse these harmful trends.
The result was a “Technology Expo” on May 29 and 30, where 67 middle-school students helped as many as 100 elders — including some of their own grandparents — with cell phones, Facebook, Internet searches, photo scanning, and other staples of the digital world. Facebook, iPads and YouTube were particular favorites among the elders.
All the teaching was done one-on-one, using techniques and technologies chosen by the students themselves.
The expo is an example of a striking new trend in community development, says Kohlstedt. “Asset-based community development does not start from needs but rather from assets. You take a look at what you have, the talents and knowledge, and incorporate them in a way that can make a difference.”
Technology Expo was one element in the Active Aging Research Center, a statewide project funded by the federal Agency for Health Care Policy and Research and headquartered at the CHESS Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Asset-based development heeds four principles, says Tom Mosgaller, director of change management at CHESS. “You start from the bottom up, it’s community-led, strength-based, always acting with an emphasis on the community; their interests are the center of our activities.”
The broad goals of the effort in Richland and nearby counties, Mosgaller says, were determined locally: to help older people remain in their chosen homes, to increase socialization and reduce isolation.
“They were really interesting in bridging the gap with elders; this came up several times in our discussions. And they were excited to share something they feel very comfortable with, to be part of involving the middle school with the community.”
According to David Gustafson, a professor of industrial engineering who founded the CHESS Center and leads the active aging center, “To meet the overall goal of keeping elderly people in their homes and out of nursing homes, we are addressing five key areas: falls prevention, safe driving, improving the dependability of home-care services, reducing loneliness and isolation, and improving medication adherence.”
The active aging project is also working in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.
Gustafson, a pioneer in the use of computer technology for health-care information and decision-making, says the project will develop problem-solving software and equipment by exploiting expertise at UW–Madison and elsewhere.
“For example, we might create a cane or a walker containing an RFID [radio-frequency identification] chip. If the cane and its user become separated by more than three feet, the cane might sound an alarm. A lot of elderly people tend to leave their canes and walkers behind, and that causes falls,” Gustafson says.
Falls among the elderly are a major cause of broken bones that lead to a cascade of medical problems, loss of mobility, and often force an unwanted move to a nursing home, Gustafson explains.
Meanwhile, back at the middle school, a smiling David Guy likes what he sees. One of his goals was to promote leadership skills among his students, and it’s clear that they have brought to the Expo enthusiasm — and also dedication and organizational talents.
Many of the kids already had experience volunteering with the elderly, Guy says. “They were really interesting in bridging the gap with elders; this came up several times in our discussions. And they were excited to share something they feel very comfortable with, to be part of involving the middle school with the community,” he says.
Lori Ward, of Muscoda, had brought some questions to the expo, and she left satisfied. “I’m learning how use a computer and a cell phone, and I would come again, definitely. This was very helpful,” she says.