Five Social Ingredients to Aging Well

What We Learned from Kaiser Permanente’s Webinar on Aging

August 11, 2015
by Sophie Spiers

Aging is scary—both for those who are aging, and those who are watching people age. In a society that largely fears the uncertainty that accompanies getting older, how can we comfort our seniors and keep them engaged in the community? How can we assure a more fluid, less complex environment for them?

Continuum and the Innovation Learning Network have organized a 4-part Series on Aging exploring the human-centered design process as it relates to services, spaces, and products for seniors and eldercare. During the kick-off webinar on Thursday, August 6th, Kaiser Permanente, an integrated managed care consortium based in Oakland, California, described its goal to transform the social state of elders. In a project they termed “Project Redwood,” Kaiser Permanente conducted extensive ethnographic research to gain insight into the senior community and the components that contribute to healthy lives and futures.

Analogous research across highly diverse industries (from NASA to the Honolulu Zoo), multi-country cultural probe kits, photo identification exercises, and visits and tag-alongs to people’s homes were some of the ways in which the team ensured a highly representative, humanistic pool of feedback from which to draw insights and conclusions about senior trends.

The team packaged their learning into Five Social Ingredients: Purpose, Interactions, Family/Friends, Finances, and Planning. The idea is that achieving a balance between all of these ingredients is key to living a long, healthy life; when any one element falls to the wayside, the balance suffers.

Purpose

As KP explained, “purpose doesn’t retire.” Across the board, seniors recognize purpose—continued contributions to society—as key to longevity. From teaching hula lessons to watering plants in a community garden, having a unique responsibility to others gives seniors momentum.

Interactions

Isolation is not good for anyone, especially seniors. People with stronger networks of family members, friends, and neighbors tend to fare better. Technology has become an asset to many seniors for its socialization opportunities. KP described one woman who kept connected to others through an iPad game called My Smurfs Village. Technology is enabling seniors– especially those who are house-ridden–to connect with people with whom they wouldn’t have been able to connect otherwise.

Family/Friends

Often, friends and family are “invisible support systems” for those who struggle to care for themselves. While we expect these people to adopt care-taking roles, we don’t usually equip them for such roles, and so their own lives are often neglected, as a result. KPM wanted to figure out what the larger community can do to prevent helpful friends and family members from burning out on care.

Finances

Another trend KPM discovered is the sacrificial relationship between needs and money. Often, seniors sacrifice their immediate needs, for fear of dwindling finances. Fixed incomes lead to increased financial anxiety, in the case of many seniors – especially those in the middle class. And so, they often face the same dilemma: suffer or spend.

Planning

By far the most telling trend garnered from KPM’s research is the fear of future hazards. On a national level, the U.S. tends to equate aging with fear and uncertainty. Changing these perceptions is key. Hazard planning for seniors is not just the responsibility of seniors; it is the community’s responsibility. Failing to identify potential hazards and to mitigate against them causes pain and wastes money.

Kaiser Permanente hopes to use these five insights as lenses into how we—as a community—can make aging easier.

Although in an early stage of development, one of KP’s prototypes aimed at achieving this goal involves an automated representation of the five social ingredients. The organization pulled platforms from various social services (such as Yelp, Facebook, Instagram) into “The Garden of Life,” an app and/or website that uses already existing digital data to automatically assess how well a senior member is doing with each of the five ingredients. If ever one of the ingredients is lacking, the automated visual will show an un-bloomed flower in their personal garden, as opposed to a bloomed flower. This visual queue is intended to remind seniors of the lifestyle changes they should make, in order to lead healthier lives.

By leveraging technology—a tool to which seniors seem to be increasingly receptive—KP hopes to diminish fear around aging, and ease the overall senior experience.

Image provided by [Kaiser Permanente][https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/html/kaiser/index.shtml].