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Busting some common myths about aging

Aging is sometimes defined by physical health but should include entire package: physical, mental and psychosocial health

The grandson of a resilient woman who ran a West Pubnico family fish plant until she was 74 is hard at work busting myths associated with aging.

Simon d’Entremont is in a good position to do that. He’s been Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of seniors since 2015 and deputy minister of energy and mines for the past year.

When d’Entremont’s grandfather died at the age of 49, his wife Mercedes stepped up to manage the fish plant, now known as Inshore Fisheries Ltd.

“To be able to get the respect as a woman in a business predominantly run by men was a great feat in itself,” says d’Entremont.

He often presents his grandmother as an example to those who have misconceptions about aging.

“We are bombarded with messages,” he says. “We have beliefs about aging that are reinforced on a daily basis – older adults are sick and getting sicker, they’re dependent, they’re frail, they’re a nuisance, they’re expensive, they’re unhappy… these are the messages that we hear on a regular basis. I’m here to suggest these beliefs are false. They’re myths.”

Last fall, d’Entremont presented a Tedx Talk on the topic.

He says the reality is people are living 10 years longer than 50 years ago and 20 years longer than 100 years ago, but society still acts like 65 is a magic day in one’s life when they stop contributing to the economy and society.

One senior told d’Entremont that he thinks others believe their sector just makes a big sucking sound once they turn 65 … meaning “consuming all the resources and being a huge problem that needs to be managed.”

“The myth that they’re all in institutions and that’s where everyone is headed is not accurate,” says d’Entremont. Some seniors are able to, and want to, continue working.

He cites an example from the luxury automobile company BMW.

Management was concerned about an inevitable decline in the productivity of the aging workforce in upcoming years. They conducted an experiment requiring a small investment. The production line was made more ergonomically friendly and job rotation was implemented. There were physiotherapist-led stretching exercises and other adjustments. The line achieved a seven per cent productivity improvement in one year, equalling the productivity of lines staffed by younger workers.

“There’s such a great benefit of experience and expertise, work experience, knowledge and wisdom that as a society we need to keep tapping into that and getting as much benefit as we can,” says d’Entremont.

He dispels the myth of “cranky” seniors. Many people actually become happier as they age (not crankier), he says. He refers to Dilip V. Jeste, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist, who says that aging is sometimes defined by physical health but should include the entire package: physical, mental and psychosocial health. The latter two factors increase with age.

The deputy minister says he’s heard repeatedly that home is where aging seniors want to live. In Nova Scotia, 93 per cent of seniors are living in their own home or apartment – some of them with help. Community planners are being urged to focus on age-friendly development where people can continue to age in place as long as they want. The communities aren’t just for older adults, adds d’Entremont. A smooth sidewalk is good for a walker and a stroller.

Losing the ability to drive is the number-one factor that makes people lose their independence in rural Nova Scotia.

Transportation is so important to combat social isolation, says d’Entremont.

One of the recommendations in SHIFT — Nova Scotia’s 32-page action plan for an aging population — is more funding for community transportation options. In the 2018-19 budget, $2.4 million was slotted for expansion and support of the initiative.

Technology is opening up a bright new world for seniors, including remote doctor visits, remote monitoring technology, medical improvements and driverless cars.

D’Entremont says working with seniors and designing social policy is important to him.

“I’m designing a future I want for myself and my kids. I’m super happy to do such interesting and great work.

“I want to pay back the hard work of the people who came before me. We need to continue to break the barriers, create new norms, dispel the myths, reap the aging dividend,

“How will we know when we’ve succeeded? We will know when we stop saying that people have achieved great things despite being old. We’ll say they’ve achieved great things because they are old.”

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