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THEory into ACTion: Can Community Engagement Promote Healthy Aging?

Grandfather and granddaughter at picnic

Our “THEory into ACTion” series continues with this cross post from APA Division 27’s Community Psychology Practice Council blog. The “THEory into ACTion” series sheds light on community psychologists making positive change in the field.

By Agnieszka Hanni, MA and Suzette Fromm Reed, PhD

As the lifespan of an average person increases in the nation, the retirement age remains the same (U.S. Social Security Administration, 2013). The repercussions of this discrepancy go beyond the economic strain of the nation as retired community members are at more risk of falling victims to age-related decline. Post-retirement stagnation and social withdrawal often lead to increased incidence of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Community engagement and mental and physical stimulation may serve a protective role in maintaining functioning of aging community dwellers (Willis & Schaie, 2009). This suggests an opportunity for community psychologists to design and build programs that can maximize the potential benefits for older adults and the communities in which they reside. This approach may further set the stage within community psychology for beginning to reduce the stigma associated with growing old portrayed in Western cultural values – an issue ignored by most of psychology (Sheung-Tak & Heller, 2009).

Decreases in functioning resulting from diminishing activity following retirement may eventually lead to premature loss of independence of older adults – a consequence that has an effect on individuals, families, and entire communities. Fortunately, researchers exploring factors leading to successful aging have demonstrated that environmental stimulation can lead to maintenance or even improvement in functioning (Willis & Schaie, 2009). For instance, Carlson et al. (2009) found that older adults demonstrated increased brain activity following participation in an intergenerational program designed to help elementary school children with their reading skills and conflict resolution. This effect was still measurable six months after the completion of the study. The involvement of older adults in this research simultaneously incorporated social engagement as well as physical and mental stimulation. In another study, participating older adults underwent training targeting specific abilities: memory, reasoning, and speed of processing (Willis et al., 2006).  Results demonstrated positive long-term effects of training on the targeted abilities of the sample of older adults. Consequently, the notion of the benefits of engagement late into old age presents a chance for community psychologists to emphasize the importance of remaining active beyond retirement. The positive effects of those types of programs and opportunities have the potential to not only impact the health of the retirees but also the broader communities in which they reside.

Continue reading the full post here.

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