Messenger - Vol. 4, No. 1, Page 7
Advocate for aging research

     The graying of America is one of the most important issues facing
the country, says John Cavanaugh, Delaware '75, chairperson of the
Department of Individual and Family Studies. Because the percentage of
older adults is expected to make up 20 percent of the total population
by the year 2025, additional behavioral science research focusing on
aging is vital, Cavanaugh says.
     As part of a national task force, Cavanaugh and Denise C. Park of
the University of Georgia recently helped produce a document calling
for such research.
     The Vitality for Life: Psychological Research for Productive
Aging document was published by the American Psychological Association
and the American Psychological Society, after representatives from 25
behavioral science agencies and organizations met to formulate a
national research agenda.
     The research areas targeted were health and behavior, functioning
of the oldest-old, productivity of older workers and specific issues
in mental health and well-being.
     As Cavanaugh and Park wrote in the introduction to Vitality for
Life, "...not enough attention is being paid to identifying ways to
change behaviors that improve older adults' health and reduce the cost
of care...little has been done to understand psychological functioning
in very late adulthood in order to document normal versus abnormal
behaviors...virtually nothing has been done to understand the needs of
older workers or how to maintain their productivity. Finally, the
mental health needs of older adults also have been neglected, in part,
because of a proclivity to view psycho-pathology as either part of the
normal aging process or as medical disorders."
     The report addresses each research priority, by stating the
problems, highlighting what is known and what needs to be known. For
example, one problem is that research on psychological functioning has
been limited mostly to those under the age of 80. More information is
needed about the oldest-old (those 80 and older) "to determine how to
optimize functioning in late life, building on the skills and
abilities that are least changed with very advanced age." Other areas
that should be explored include why some of the oldest-old adapt to
change and some do not, as well as the impact of environment and
genetic factors on aging.
     According to Cavanaugh, emphasis thus far has been on medical
research involving older Americans, but applied psychology can provide
practical help in improving life for this group.
     Based on his own research, Cavanaugh, points out that applied
psychology and non-medical interventions can be useful for Alzheimer's
patients. For example, some Alzheimer's patients have a tendency to
wander-a problem for them and their caregivers. By putting up a red
octagonal sign on a door, the international "stop" sign, some patients
will stop. Another simple maneuver is to tape a grid on the floor,
which also will stop some patients.
     Other non-medical treatments that do not involve drugs nor
treatment can improve the quality of life for older Americans, he
says, such as persuading them to exercise, to eat properly, to stay
active cognitively and to stop smoking. Research is needed to develop
psychological strategies to encourage healthy lifestyles. In addition,
many older Americans suffer from chronic diseases that can be helped
by behavioral interventions, Cavanaugh says.
                                                   -Sue Swyers Moncure