The Myth of Aging

Professor Gene Cohen shows that older persons are not “over the hill.” They are truly “55 or better.”

By Laura Ewald

An anonymous German postcard from the late 1800s depicts a perceptual illusion in which the viewer can see either a young woman or an old woman. Through his research on gerontology and creativity, Professor Gene Cohen reminds us that aging, too, is a matter of perception.

"Wicked, weird, or weak”—from children’s fairy tales to TV sitcoms, that is the stereotypical portrayal of aging, says Gene Cohen, professor of health care sciences and of psychiatry. Through founding and directing GW’s Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities, Cohen deconstructs this mindset and disseminates the truth about today’s older adults: They are living longer, are more educated and active, and have better care options than ever before. And it is a challenge for the American public, government, health care providers, media, and businesses to keep up with them.

Through his work at the center and his book on how creativity unlocks the potential of the body and mind, Cohen is the driving force behind a widespread reevaluation of the aging process.

Cohen became involved in gerontology while training in psychiatry at Georgetown in the early 1970s. “I started with the unfounded mindset that older adults were tired, forgetful, and reaching the end of their journey,” Cohen says. “What I found was that they were improving through the medical and social interventions they were receiving, that they were grateful for and responsive to care, and that they had a great deal of life to live. It was a brand new field, and there was a dramatic change as the public, the medical field, and the older adults themselves had to adapt.”

From 1973 to 1975, Cohen was stationed at the National Institutes of Health during military service for the Vietnam War. At NIH, he was asked to head a program for the elderly. That program turned into the National Institute on Mental Health’s Center on Aging. After his service officially ended, he stayed on at NIH, where he remained as director of the center for 13 years.

The existence of the Center on Aging helped to bring about major changes in how people view aging, Cohen says. Instead of viewing older adults as a group doomed to lose their good hearing, eyesight, and memory, “We began to see older adults as a thriving population that happens to be affected by age-associated problems,” he says. “These are problems that can happen when you age, not things that will happen because you age.”

This change in mind set was profound. “It was an exciting time when we began to see that we could treat these problems and improve their quality of life,” Cohen says. “It wasn’t a matter of the inevitable anymore; it was a matter of the possible.”

In 1994, after serving three years as acting director of the National Institute on Aging, Cohen left the government to join GW’s faculty and founded the University’s Center on Aging, Health, & Humanities. “GW is an ideal location to influence social policy, a critical aspect of our work at the center,” Cohen says.

The center also conducts sponsored research on aging, with the goal of improving the quality of life for older adults and their families. Projects are led by an interdisciplinary group of GW scientists and faculty members; for example, GW’s oral history and art therapy professors have worked on special tasks with the medical staff.

The center’s research emphasizes creative projects and intergenerational activities, from crossword puzzles to family quilting projects. Improved family visits, greater mobility, and a more positive mental outlook are some of the benefits.

Cohen and his approach of promoting creative endeavors to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease have been covered widely in the media. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 4.5 million Americans have the disease, a number that has more than doubled since 1980 and is expected to grow to an excess of 11 million people by 2050. The Alzheimer’s Association says that finding a treatment that could delay onset by five years might reduce the number of individuals with the disease by nearly 50 percent after 50 years.

It was during the late 1990s that Cohen and colleague Barbara Soniat began noticing in their research that creative activities may help delay Alzheimers. In 1997, they founded the Creativity Discovery Corps to formally examine the connection. Based at the Iona Senior Services facility in Washington, the corps and partner organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts help older adults engage in community-based arts programs and note the direct impact on social skills, mobility, physical health, and overall good mental health.

They have found that sleep and mood disorders can be alleviated by stimulating the brain; that vocabulary expands well into the 80s among people who continually challenge themselves through reading, writing, and word games; and that an active lifestyle can boost the immune system.

A few years later, Cohen wrote The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (Perennial Currents, 2001), which put him and the center’s research in the national spotlight, as the book sparked more than 600 media queries. The subject also became the main focus of a study that will guide the White House Conference on Aging in December.

Cohen says that there are more adults over the age of 65 in the United States today than the entire population of Canada. That figure will grow once the Baby Boomers reach their senior years. Because today’s older adults are more educated, are more civically active, and have more influence than ever before, they have “markedly and deservedly more influence and public presence than older adults have ever enjoyed in the past,” and it is a trend that will continue, he says. Markets such as housing are already being affected, as evidenced by the boom in retirement housing options, from “55 or better” retirement communities, to “age in place” homes.

Cohen refers to these resulting economic, medical, social, and governmental changes as a new “landscape for aging in America.” It is one in which “we need to make sure that we as a nation are investing enough research, time, and funding into caring for these citizens and taking advantage of what they have to offer. Older adults are an undertapped national resource,” he says.

From raising grandchildren to volunteering, older adults are increasingly an integral part of the American fabric of society and family. “Especially with today’s single-parent families, grandparents and older adults are caring for society like never before,” Cohen says.

“Intergenerational communication helps everyone’s personal growth,” he adds. “For older adults, it exposes them to the full range of human interaction and helps them stay in touch with the changing world. For young people, especially children, it helps expand their understanding and perception of themselves as ‘helping individuals,’ and this interaction gives them a new respect for every stage of life.”

Gene Cohen in his office at the Iona Senior Services center in Washington with the therapeutic board game he developed for older adults who have Alzheimer’s disease. Using biographical flash cards to spark memories, the game helps patients reconnect with their families.

The flagship project of the GW center is treating Alzheimer’s disease through what is called “biographical interventions.” Using photos and images coupled with running commentary, families and staff members create video biographies that spark memories and emotional response in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Cohen and his staff also developed a therapeutic board game that includes biographical flash cards—images and names of grandchildren, places, and pets with accompanying questions—created with help from family and friends.

Family visits also help younger generations improve their perception of older adults: Cohen says studies show that while the majority of American children have a positive view of the older adults in their family, they have a negative overall view of aging. Cohen teamed with the Association for Library Service to Children of the American Library Association to create and disseminate a list of books geared to children going into kindergarten through sixth grade that portray older adults in a positive light.

In preparation for the White House Conference on Aging this December, Cohen and researchers from across the nation are meeting at officially designated mini “feeder” conferences to discuss these and other studies, the needs of older adults, technology, and other topics. They will make recommendations to the president and Congress on how to continue to better serve the population. The conference is held every 10 years and has been a catalyst for important aging programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, Supplemental Security Income, and the programs on aging at NIH.

Documentary Focuses on Aging

The 77 million members of the Baby Boomer generation are no strangers to revolution; challenging the status quo was the hallmark of their coming-of-age. They’re taking a similar approach to retirement.

“Boomers simply don’t identify with the aging process. In our minds, we’re still the revolutionaries who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s,” says assistant research professor of history Nina Gilden Seavey.

Seavey is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker and director of GW’s Documentary Center. In her newest production, The Open Road: America Looks at Aging, Seavey profiles 14 individuals and their varying approaches to aging. The film premieres in July on American Public Television. It includes commentary from professor Gene Cohen, director of GW’s Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities.

Research for the film took Seavey across the country to find individuals who embodied six major issues Boomers will have to face, topics such as fear, financial difficulties, and pursuing new hobbies and opportunities.

“There’s no such thing for Boomers as ‘one size fits all,’ and it’s not a given that every person will be able to enjoy their retirement. Aging will not be a linear process,” Seavey says.

She highlights societal issues relating to aging populations as well. “I don’t think those responsible for our social institutions and public policy related to older Americans have even begun to recognize the huge demographic transformation about to take place, or have any understanding of what it means,” Seavy says.

The film will be part of a nationwide dialogue that will include 10 town meetings, news articles, and the creation of a model communities program.

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