Keeping a positive attitude: the key to happiness in old age

“Come on, be positive” sounds so earnest and is almost always well-intentioned, but surely there’s more to happiness than just ‘thinking positively,’ we think? Perhaps not, according to a new study; a positive attitude could be the most important element to a happy life in residential aged care.

A three-year research collaboration between Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the aged care provider BallyCara involves 110 participants using “an active ageing framework to explore and track changes in experiences, expectations and perceptions of current and future older Australians towards aged care.”

Labelled ‘Happiness in Residential Aged Care’, the project looks to the experiences of everyday life in aged care through a series of intimate interviews with residents and their fellow members, service providers, along with their future residents – the baby boomers. Photographic research is also being carried out, through a visual PhotoVoice approach. Residents are given cameras and are requested to take photographs throughout the day, illustrating both their happy and sad times.

Environmental psychologist at QUT Associate Professor Evonne Miller, one of the lead researchers on the project, reports that ‘active ageing’ is an imperative for happiness in aged care; however, early findings indicated that an individual’s attitude is also key.

According to Miller, the conscious choice an elderly individual makes has an integral effect on their mood. They can decide to be happy and enjoy the remainder of their lives, or they can decide that they want to be unhappy, angry or even grouchy.

Although the project is not complete, Miller reports that five key findings are emerging that predicate happiness in aged care:

  • upholding privacy, freedom, independence and self-determination;
  • joining in activities and treating fellow residents and staff like family;
  • having a planned and organized approach to life, with activities to look forward to;
  • feeling secure and safe in the physical environment, and
  • the right mental attitude, literally making a conscious decision to maintain positive emotions.

Human contact and social interaction are also emerging as having a huge role in happiness. When examining the staff’s participation in the project, Miller said that staff interaction with residents, even just five to 10 minutes a day, talking and listening, made a huge difference to residents’ happiness and health.

Contact with staff was noted as the thing that the elderly participants valued most, and, in particular, having staff view participants as individuals, with individual needs and personalities, and not just as another resident in the building.

In the past, aged care has traditionally focused on clinical outcomes, but with this new study, happiness was a key element to seniors living healthier and longer lives. In retirement years and in particular, when entering the residential aged care environment, individuals often feel anxious or upset. At this critical time, it is essential to decrease the likelihood of individuals developing depression. Care teams need to ensure that the focus is on emotional well-being, just as much as physical well-being.

By 2050, one in four people will be over the age of 65, providing significant impetus to the quest to find ways of improving aged care, and identifying factors that will enhance the quality of life for individuals as they age.

“Years have been added to life, we must add life to these years.”

WHO, 2002

Ageing – from a personal perspective

Ageing from a personal perspective - Sage Institute of Aged CareWhile there has been considerable investigation into active ageing principles (the process of optimising physical, social and mental well-being), little research has been performed on the personal experience of elderly Australians living in, or receiving services from, a residential aged care facility. As the large baby boomer population moves into their twilight years, little is known about their expectations for this time.

The study is due to be completed by the end of 2016, with expected outcomes including engagement of the wider community in a conversation surrounding the experiences of those who age in the residential care context, exhibitions of participants’ photos, and an integrated model of active ageing in Australian residential care.

Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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