Guest Columnist

Expert on aging brings needed message to Cedar Rapids

Director of MIT AgeLab to speak on Coe College campus Tuesday

Caregivers and facilitators talk during a meeting of the Mindful Caregiver book club at Family Caregiver's Center of Mer
Caregivers and facilitators talk during a meeting of the Mindful Caregiver book club at Family Caregiver's Center of Mercy on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

One advantage of our long Iowa winters is the more frequent opportunity to curl up by the fireplace with a good book in hand. While I enjoy an occasional mystery or historical novel, I have a special affinity for self-help books. That’s why, last February, my eye was drawn to a book review about “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market” by Dr. Joseph F. Coughlin. I’m not all that interested in economics, but something within the review spoke to me and I wanted to know more. Within the week, I had the book in hand, curled up on the sofa once again.

In addition to being an author, Coughlin is also director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Age Lab. An internationally known expert on aging, he focuses on research to better understand the behavior of those 50 and older, the role of technology and design in their lives, and the opportunity for innovation to improve the quality of life for older adults and their families.

Coughlin’s book was self-affirming. As soon as I started reading, I could identify with his messages about aging. Being an older adult who has retired twice before taking on a full-time volunteer position, I’m often asked why I do it. This made me stop — more than once — and ponder, why do I do it? The answer is that I want to continue to be a “doer,” to be part of developing something worthwhile and meaningful.

It also affirmed that, as an older female, I’m not crazy for working hard for something I believe in. In fact, Coughlin describes the concept of “women as lead guides” and how they are valuable to society for their ability to look around and clearly identify needs in the community. I thought, “Wow, I’m always doing that!” I just never really knew it was a thing.

As director of the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy since its inception in 2014, one of the most fulfilling aspects of my position is the opportunity to identify needs in our community and find meaningful and creative ways to meet those needs. In particular, one of the growing populations we serve at the center are people living with dementia and their caregivers. This is generally an older audience, and their needs can be immense. As such, I’m constantly asking myself what we can learn about aging from this population and how can we look at it through a new lens.

According to Coughlin, our aging population represents the most profound change coming our way. As a result, we have a major opportunity to “get it” and embrace older adults, which will make our communities better for everyone.

I’m encouraged that Cedar Rapids recently joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. The network provides member communities with resources to become more age-friendly by tapping into national and global research, planning models and best practices. One example of a local effort to be more age-friendly is the city’s new pedestrian master plan, which helps identify priority sidewalks for improvement and other strategies to enhance walkability.

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Coughlin’s research confirms that I’m not off-base for wanting to stay actively involved in my community, be on the lookout for unmet needs and volunteer to help find solutions. And, for that affirmation, I plan to thank him personally.

I’m also looking forward to sharing with Coughlin some of our success stories — both from the Family Caregivers Center and within the city as a whole — and hearing from him how we can further embrace and serve our population of older adults in a more contemporary way. We’ll have that opportunity this month, when he travels to Cedar Rapids. We are delighted that Dr. Coughlin accepted an invitation from Mercy and Coe College to speak at the Coe Contemporary Issues Forum at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 18, in Coe’s Sinclair Auditorium.

I hope you’ll come hear Dr. Coughlin speak. If we embrace his perspective and create opportunities for older people to be more actively involved in our community — and to continue working, if they want to — we’ll gain something even more valuable: a chance to create legacies for a richer community by providing older adults with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Kathy Good volunteers her time as executive director at the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy.

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