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Current research

Changing Perceptions of Aging

Main Investigator: Jennifer Smith, jsmith@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.7437
Previous research has found that positive perceptions of aging are associated with a wide range of benefits, including better physical health, brain health, longevity, psychological well-being, and relationships. Improving older adults’ perceptions of aging may have a positive impact on their well-being.  In collaboration with Loyola University Chicago, the purpose of this project is to develop and test the effectiveness of an activity designed to change older adults’ perceptions of aging.

Health and Positive Experiences

Main Investigator: Jennifer Smith, jsmith@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.7437
Positive emotions are important to many aspects of one’s life, including emotional well-being and physical health. Savoring is the ability to be mindful of positive experiences and to modify our thoughts and behaviors in ways that increase and prolong positive feelings.  In collaboration with Loyola University Chicago, over 500 participants, ages 18-94, were surveyed to examine the association between savoring and physical health.  One of the key findings is that the relationship between physical health and life satisfaction depends on people’s ability to savor positive experiences.  For older adults with lower savoring abilities, poor health was associated with lower satisfaction with life. In contrast, older adults with greater savoring abilities reported high satisfaction with life regardless of their health.  These findings suggest that the ability to savor positive experiences helps increase older adults’ psychological resilience. 

Effects of a Positive Intervention on Resilience and Well-Being of Older Adults

Main Investigator: Jennifer Smith, jsmith@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.7437
This pilot study tested the effects of a new positive intervention on the resilience and well-being of older adults. More than 100 adults, ages 60 or better, participated in this study.  Participants were instructed to savor positive experiences in their life twice a day for one week.   Participants completed measures of their resilience and well-being at four different time points: pre-intervention, post-intervention, 1-month and 3 months after the intervention.  After one week, participants reported increases in resilience as well as decreases in depressive symptoms, and these effects were sustained for one month or longer.   

Resilience and Well-Being in Older Adults

Main Investigator: Jennifer Smith, jsmith@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.7437
We conducted a survey to assess the relationship between resilience, savoring (i.e., the ability to amplify or up-regulate positive emotions), and psychological well-being. This study revealed that the ability to savor positive experiences was associated with better psychological well-being (i.e., greater happiness, lower depression, higher satisfaction with life) for older adults with high and low levels of resilience, and this effect was strongest for people with lower resilience.  These findings suggest that savoring is most beneficial for people with the greatest need – people with lower resilience. 

Senior Living Health & Well-Being Study

Main Investigator:  Cate O’Brien, cobrien@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.6803
Many Senior Living communities provide a wide an array of opportunities for wellness, including physical activity programs, social events, and stress reduction (e.g., yoga, meditation). Little is known, however, about how this kind of environment affects residents’ long-term health and well-being. In 2016, we will conduct a six year, large scale, longitudinal study of residents to better understand the impact of living in a senior living community on older adults’ health and well-being. Various physical and psychosocial outcomes of older adult residents will be compared with data from individual participants in the Health and Retirement Study database. The study is designed to address the following questions:

  • What are residents’ beliefs about how living in a senior living community has impacted their health and well-being? 
  • Which factors predict which residents will thrive (have positive psychosocial and physical health) in senior living communities?
  • Relative to a community dwelling population, does living in a senior living community lead to better health and well-being?

Culinary Trends Study

Main Investigator:  Cate O’Brien cobrien@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.6803
Culinary services in one of the most important areas of senior living. Recogizing this, Senior living providers are continually trying to remain at the cutting edge of innovation in relation to the venues and menu offerings they provide. In 2016, we plan to survey senior living communities across the country on their practices and perceptions of what they perceive as important trends in culinary services. A report will be published and made available to the senior living industry.

Development and Proliferation of the Village Model

Main Investigators: Roscoe Nicholson, rnicholson@matherlifeways.com,  (847) 492.6790 and Cate O’Brien, cobrien@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.6803
Villages are grassroots, membership organizations designed to help older adults better meet their material and social needs and age in place. Since the development of the first Village in 2001, the Village model has proliferated throughout the United States, with more than 180 fully operational Villages in the US, and another 160 reportedly in development. This project will analyze the current development and proliferation of the Village movement in the US. In particular, the project will:

  • Document the current status of Villages in the US, including the range and variability of Village models;
  • Analyze how the Village organizational field has evolved since 2012;
  • Examine the development of local and regional Village coalitions, including the preliminary outcomes of such efforts; and,
  • Examine factors that contribute to Village failure.

Building Brain-Healthy Environments

Main Investigator:  Roscoe Nicholson, rnicholson@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.6790
This qualitative study included interviews with staff from 13 senior living organizations on the ways that they promote brain fitness among their residents. With the exception of one location, participants reported high resident enthusiasm for offerings promoted as brain fitness. These offerings included educational programs, activity-focused programming, and computerized brain training. Some offered brain fitness programming haphazardly and infrequently, while others took steps in their planning process to ensure frequent and regular offerings. Numerous avenues of promoting brain fitness within senior living were described, including bulletin boards, newsletters, health fairs, brain fitness stations, creating buy-in with resident councils, and organization-wide efforts to educate and train staff in order to promote brain fitness. Six steps were identified that can aid senior living organizations in creating a culture of brain fitness. The most commonly reported barriers to greater promotion of brain fitness were limited staffing and available resources.

Boosting Resilience in Older Adults through Storytelling

Main Investigator:  Jordan Stein, jstein@matherlifeways.com(847) 492.5032
This project explored how life satisfaction, self-worth, socialization, feelings of connectedness/community could be enhanced via the act of sharing one’s life stories with others. In a set of pilot storytelling classes for older adults, a trained storytelling instructor led older adults in a four-week course devoted to story idea generation, writing mechanics, editing, and oral storytelling techniques. Upon completing the classes, class participants invited their friends and family members to see them tell their stories. A second storytelling class is scheduled, and others are being planned in order to continue the study and collect more data. Participants in these classes will be surveyed, and exit interviews will be conducted to determine the effects of storytelling on their day-to-day lives.

Evaluating Psycho-Social Impact of Second Life on Older Adults

Main Investigator:  Cate O’Brien, cobrien@matherlifeways.com(847) 492.6803
Extensive research points to social isolation among older adults as a significant public health problem due to its relationship with physical and mental health. This study examined the potential to create social connections within the virtual world, Second Life (SL), among community-dwelling older adults aged 60 and older from Arkansas. Project staff assisted participants in learning how to navigate the SL interface, interacting with other avatars, and visiting areas in SL.

Participant interviews (n = 39) revealed that a minority of older adults produced meaningful social relationships which were sustained over time, and in some cases, crossed into real life. Other participants reported only superficial or brief interactions. Obstacles to relationship building included difficulties navigating SL, fear of interacting with unknown avatars, feeling unwelcome by other avatars, and opportunity costs (i.e., a feeling that time in SL reduced time real life relationships). Because of the opportunity costs and opportunity for specialized groups in Second Life (e.g. for individuals with disabilities, veterans), further studies should consider targeting special subgroups of older adults rather than the general older adult population.

Boost Your Brain & Memory

Main Investigator:  Cate O’Brien, cobrien@matherlifeways.com(847) 492.6803
Funding:  Spencer Powell Bequest
The Boost Your Brain & Memory program helps senior living residents understand evidence-based practices that can help them reduce their risk of dementia and utilize practical memory strategies. There is compelling evidence for the cognitive benefits of certain lifestyle behaviors, such as physical activity, nutrition, and social engagement. In 2012, Dr. O’Brien worked with a team of experts in public health research and neuropsychology to develop a multi-component brain fitness program for older adults. This program was initially tested in a randomized controlled trial at six Mather LifeWays locations. The study demonstrated positive trends in “brain-healthy” behaviors among individuals in the intervention group.  In 2013, a second pilot study including 12 CCRCs across the country also demonstrated positive outcomes for older adult participants. Most recently, Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging researchers collaborated with University of California, Berkeley researchers to pilot test the program in seven Village organizations to evaluate the impact of the program among Village members. About two-thirds of participants reported making intervention-related lifestyle changes (e.g. physical activity, meditation and stress reduction exercises, nutrition, or intellectual activity) “to a moderate or great extent,” and 80% said they planned to make more changes in the coming months. 

Developing a Program to Enhance Resilience in Older Adults and Their Service Providers

Main Investigator: Jennifer Smith, jsmith@matherlifeways.com, (847) 492.7437
Resilience has been described as being “able to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change.” In later life, resilience is thought to be an important component of successful psychosocial adjustment and is associated with mental health status. However, little has been studied relative to resilience in older adults. Resilience is an important facet of psychological aging and can be enhanced by appropriate interventions and “age-friendly environments.” Moreover, some evidence indicates that age-related declines can be minimized and even reversed. There is evidence that resilience can be influenced and strengthened by psychosocial, behavioral, cognitive, and physiological factors within the realm of interventions, which may enhance the adaptive capacity of older adults to age successfully. This project focused on the development and pilot testing of a quantitative resilience tool specific to older adult populations. Building upon these findings, a resilience-building program was developed to reduce the impact of stress on well-being of older adults and staff in senior living communities.  

National Survey of Family Members of Residents Living in Continuing Care Retirement Communities

Contact: (847) 492.7444
Mather LifeWays, Ziegler, and Brecht Associates partnered to conduct the first national survey of family members of residents living in Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs). As senior living providers are planning their futures, many are wondering what the next generation of older adults will desire relative to their housing and lifestyle needs. This survey focuses on nearly 3,700 people who are knowledgeable about the CCRC concept, and can provide helpful feedback regarding what they would like to see in a future community. Based on respondents’ current knowledge and experiences with CCRCs, 77% would be likely to consider a lifestyle community offering a full continuum of living options for themselves and their spouses. Nearly nine in ten respondents would select a CCRC model versus a strictly independent living community. Having access to assisted living and long-term care, if needed, are two of the most important reasons respondents would select a CCRC model. Download the full report.