Optimal aging studies examine emerging issues

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Bowling Green State University faculty and students are working to improve the lives of people across the lifespan, through teaching, research and engagement. To help expand our understanding of the needs of the older generation, the University’s Optimal Aging Institute is supporting research projects related to the health and well-being of older adults. The institute is funding four internal BGSU grants this year that look at a range of timely issues, from LGBTQ individuals in senior living facilities to people who had planned to retire but who for financial reasons cannot.

“We’re seeing dramatic cultural and societal changes,” said Paula Davis, director of the institute. New needs are being revealed, along with the appropriate ways of addressing them.

This is nowhere more apparent in nursing homes and other senior-living facilities, she said. One of the OAI grants is focused on helping these facilities better serve LGBTQ individuals, a population not previously acknowledged. Moving into such a facility is a dramatic change for all people, and LGBTQ individuals may face additional challenges and stress.

“For many LGBTQ seniors who have lived openly, moving into a nursing home or assisted living facility may mean going back into the closet,” said Dr. Laura Landry-Meyer, an associate professor of family and consumer sciences. She and Dr. Elizabeth Holman, an assistant professor of human development and family studies, are examining how best to provide diversity training for employees of senior living centers so that they can understand and be sensitive to non-heterosexual residents. Holman and Landry-Meyer are partnering with Brookdale Bowling Green to pilot an educational program and then to test its effectiveness, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Their project, “Creating Contextual Support: Barriers to Implementing LGBTQ Diversity Training in Senior Living Facilities,” will implement face-to-face training adapted from existing models.

“The training is out there, unique to the needs, it’s just that nobody is using it,” Holman said. “Except for in a few states, nobody markets their facilities as LGBTQ-friendly. They may fear it’s too political to take a public stance, or there may be other fears that create hesitation on their part.

“We want to know what types of support these facilities need to implement this training, and what we need to do to help get people over that hump of acceptance,” she said. “We also want the staff to feel more secure in knowing how to relate to people. Being silent about LGBTQ issues doesn’t enhance the support and feelings of being in a safe space that promotes healthy aging for this population.

“When an LGBTQ person moves into a senior living facility, they may face discrimination or experience a fear of discrimination. All that stress unique to LGBTQ people can make them more vulnerable. They worry about how their neighbors and the staff will react if they have or had a same-sex partner. Can they feel comfortable negotiating conversations with staff, or in the dining room? Also, from a family perspective, does someone feel comfortable coming out as the parent or grandparent of an LGBTQ relative? There’s a large range of attitudes toward LGBTQ populations, and we want to figure out how to best train senor living facilities to become more supportive of all their residents.”

Ohio is a good place to test the training, said Landry-Meyer. It is second only to Florida in the number of senior living facilities. “And Brookdale is very pro-education. They host monthly webinars and invite gerontologists from all over the area. We’re very excited to be working with them.”

Another kind of stress affects those who would like to retire but find they cannot manage it. Yisheng Peng, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology is specializing in both developmental psychology, which looks at people across the lifespan, and organizational/industrial psychology, which looks at the psychology of work. He is partnering with Drs. Steven Jex and Yiwei Chen, also in the department, on a study of “Risk and Protective Factors for Psychological Well-Being of Older Workers Who Cannot Afford Retirement.” Jex specializes in and organizational/industrial psychology, and Chen is a specialist in developmental psychology.

Peng and his co-investigators plan to collaborate with organizations such as a nonprofit senior employment center that deals with people over age 50 who are still in the job market to conduct an online survey. They will look at such factors as work-life conflict/balance and family dynamics, perceived workload in the current job, social support from coworkers and interpersonal relations, physical health and psychological well-being and, importantly, job insecurity.

They hope the results of their study can provide guidance for policy makers and organizations. The situation for those approaching retirement became more acute following the 2008 financial crisis, which wreaked havoc with the plans of many workers, Peng said. “Even though the economic situation has improved, we still see older workers who continue to work after retirement. We cannot just ignore them.”

Survey questions on physical health will ask respondents to what extent they feel they cannot sleep well, and whether they feel such things as shoulder and neck pain, which become more common with age, Peng said. In the psychological well-being area, questions will be asked about life satisfaction, happiness, and job satisfaction.

Total family income can be an important factor in whether an individual feels he or she can retire, Peng said. In addition, earlier studies show that when an older parent requires caregiving, women are more likely to either retire or cut down to part-time work.

For people in jobs that require physical capability, like nurses, worry about their continued ability to do their jobs becomes a stress factor. “You may want to work more hours but it can be dangerous for your health,” Peng said.

“We also want to measure job insecurity, where people need their job but fear they might lose it at any moment. Part-time jobs are especially vulnerable, and short-time jobs can be very unstable.”

Protective factors include “job crafting,” in which employees initiate changes in the task or relational boundaries of their work by changing with whom they interact, moving from a line job in a factory, for instance, to a desk job with less physical stress. Older employees also benefit from generativity opportunities to transfer knowledge and serve as formal or informal mentors and thus maintain their pride in their job.

Some companies may offer “phased retirement,” in which employees may shorten their work hours or work part time, which allows companies to retain their valuable job skills. This can be a protective factor if the employee is involved in the decision, Peng said, or a risk factor if they find themselves scheduled for fewer hours than they need to make ends meet.

“If they do not have a say in the process, they have no autonomy. They feel ‘Someone is taking my job, and I need my salary.’”

Age-related job discrimination is a sensitive issue and hard to measure, he said. It can be difficult to prove since job performance can sometimes be based on both subjective or objective criteria, especially in positions where it is hard to quantify. Companies are often wary of speaking about it since older workers are a protected class — and “older workers” are surprisingly defined as those over 40 by the Age Discrimination Act.

The project is an extension of a topic Peng explored in his doctoral dissertation, in which he focused on nurses in Ohio older than 50, the age at which most people begin to think about retirement, he said. He found that even though the salary for nurses of that age is fairly high, they still worried about their standard of living after retirement, and many planned to continue working, either part time or in another related field.

“If people can derive meaningfulness from their current jobs, they would prefer to continue working after retirement,” he found.

Some retirees choose to enter an entirely different field than their previous job. They may provide valuable service as shuttle bus drivers or retail employees, where the salary may be less but still supplements their income and the work is less demanding.

Peng hopes to continue the study after the initial survey to provide more in-depth answers and to expand the results.

The other two grants funded by the OAI are for a study of osteoporosis in Erie County, Ohio, by Sylvia Hermo-Fedro, a lecturer in applied sciences at BGSU Firelands, and for the analysis of qualitative data collected by Dr. Kate Magsamen-Conrad, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, over the last several years of ongoing research about older adults’ technology/media skills acquisition, health and interactions between college students and middle-aged and older adults.