Aspects of positive aging explored
April 18, 2005
I've recently been exploring the many and varied aspects of Positive Aging and would like to share some thoughts about "Appreciative Inquiry."
The later years can be experienced as positive growth, a period to be welcomed rather than feared. At least this is the implication of a practice called Appreciative Inquiry.
The elements of Appreciative Inquiry are simple. Rather than focusing on "the problems" that so often occupy organizational and personal life, participants are charged with exploring stories about positive events, for example, about incidents in which the organization was particularly successful, and/or in which they themselves were inspired. Through the sharing of these stories, visions of positive possibilities are distilled. Participants then begin to develop plans that can help realize these possibilities and ways of ensuring their implementation.
Professionals working with elders have begun to adopt this kind of orientation and with good effects. They are drawn to an appreciative stance because it represents a complete turnaround from the pervasive tendency to see aging as a vast sea of problems to be confronted. Seldom is aging understood in terms of the openings and opportunities that are available and the forms of growth that many people experience as they age. Additionally, we seldom consider how problems themselves are not negative; even illness and disability harbor positive potential. Finally, we don't often stop to consider whether something commonly labeled "a problem" is deserving of this name alone. For example, many authorities speak of the period when children leave the home as "the empty nest problem," while many parents describe this period in their lives as rejuvenating.
Theresa Bertam, CEO of the Cathedral Foundation of Jacksonville, Florida, says:
For the last five years, using Appreciative Inquiry, we have begun to understand elders in a new way. We now see elders from a position of strength, not of weakness. They are creative, rich with history and filled with ideas for the future — they are robust, often reaching across generations to build a better society —and they are spiritual and take the time to explore fully this dimension of their lives. They are so different from the sick, frail, sexless, weak, disabled, powerless, passive and unhappy persons portrayed in many segments of our society. We now understand that we do not sustain our elders — their presence sustains us.
Barbara Hanson is director of community resource development for the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging. For information about senior services, call the Senior Helpline at 800-642-5119 or 786-5991 or visit www.svcoa.org.