What I Wish I'd Known About Elders' Nonphysical Needs: Xtreme Aging Trainer Peg Gordon

An "aging sensitivity" teacher learned what's wrong with nursing homes when her grandmother was admitted to one.

When Ida Hieb moved into a state-run nursing home in Ohio after a small stroke, it was supposed to be a short stay. She ended up living there until her death a few years later, at 98. During that time, her family -- including granddaughter Peg Gordon -- learned the hard way that many nursing facilities focus solely on their residents' physical conditions, ignoring their equally important social, spiritual, emotional, and cognitive needs.

"It was a very medical model and designed for the convenience of staff, not necessarily for the best interest of the patient," Gordon recalls. "There was a set time when you're going to eat, and a set thing you're going to eat; too bad if it's inconvenient for you. There were no individually designed activities to challenge her cognitive skills or allow her to socialize on a level that she was comfortable with. There was no counseling or emotional support -- although antidepressants were discussed from time to time. Truthfully, I don't believe any staff took the time to really know or care about my granny as a person. She was simply someone's job."

That's one reason why Gordon now works for the Macklin Intergenerational Institute, begun in 2003 by NASDAQ founder Gordon Macklin and his wife, Marilyn, in Findlay, Ohio. (Gordon Macklin died of a stroke in 2007 at the age of 78.) Among its programs aimed at improving the lives of elderly people through intergenerational activities is a childcare center that brings together young children with residents of an assisted-living and nursing home at the Institute. Another program, Xtreme Aging, provides exercises that simulate experiences such as weakened lung capacity and loss of dexterity, so that caregivers and other participants can really feel what it's like to be old.

Gordon -- a consultant and trainer with the program -- says going through Xtreme Aging herself helped her understand, in retrospect, about her grandmother's needs. "Xtreme Aging really tries to let people experience on a very small scale what it is to be diminishing; how aging affects all of the domains," she says. "I could look back and say, 'That's what she must have been going through.' I really began to understand how her spirit must have been crushed. I think the biggest thing I learned was to appreciate a person for where they are in their life, and to understand what they need."

Gordon was only 30 at the time of her grandmother's death and had no legal control of where she lived. Still, she says, if she could turn back time, she knows what she would look for in a residential community or nursing home. "A really good facility is focused on the individual. The hubbub of real life is around them. For example, are there children around in childcare or kindergarten classes? Are there gift shops, beauty parlors, churches, and libraries in a centralized location for the residents to use? Are there gardens to tend to? A good facility should have a resident council that gives all residents a voice. A good facility lets people eat when they're hungry and not just when it's convenient for staff. A good facility is a real community."

Read the full interview with Peg Gordon

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