Columbus-Athens Schweitzer Fellow Matthew Fullen recently spent two years providing mental health counseling to adults living with disabilities and chronic health conditions. He was struck by how much staff attention was focused on clients’ physical states, with minimal emphasis on their emotional or spiritual states. He also noticed the dearth of discussion of what personal strengths and resources clients possessed that could aid in improving their health. He saw his Schweitzer Fellowship as a perfect opportunity to “flip this script” and explore the potential benefits to taking a more holistic approach to caring for this population.
“What happens when we focus on the whole person?” asks Fullen, a doctoral students at the Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology. “What about when we recognize the strengths and resilience that both older adult clients and staff possess?”
The exploration of those questions is at the heart of Fullen’s Schweitzer Fellowship project at National Church Residences’ Center for Senior Health in Columbus, Ohio. There, Fullen is providing holistic mental health education to underserved clients and their caregivers at an adult day center.
“Most of our clients here score low on traditional measures of physical health, but they are coming to see themselves as resilient people,” says Fullen. “And we know from the literature that people who see themselves as resilient have better health outcomes over time.
Fullen hopes to create a model site that attends to the needs of the whole person. That means addressing not only physical health needs, but also the psychological, social, and spiritual needs of older adults. This is accomplished by looking at the strengths and resilience of both clients and the staff who work so hard to provide them with good care.
“At the staff level, I want to strengthen the staff’s pride in their work,” Fullen adds. “The staff and I partnered to identify their character strengths and we celebrated their good work with a ‘SPA’ day, which stands for “Strengthening Pride in Aging.”
Looking to enhance the sustainability of the program, Fullen says he has had “good discussions” with senior personnel at the Center for Senior Health about how the lessons learned through his project can translate to other parts of their organization.
He’s learned a good lesson or two over the course of his project.
A big one is that many older adults struggle to maintain a reason for living, but given the right support, they have much to offer each other and their broader communities. For example, each week Fullen and a colleague meet with a group of 30 seniors with significant chronic health conditions to discuss what it means to be resilient in the face of disability, advanced age, and increased dependence on others. Recently, “Brenda” (the client’s name has been changed for confidentiality reasons), an African American woman in her sixties who is recovering from a stroke, raised her hand to share some thoughts with the group. Fullen was surprised as Brenda did not usually speak much due to the effects of her stroke. But on this day, she spoke up and told her peers, “Every week I take what you all talk about and think about it when I go home. Hearing everyone talk about what keeps them going inspires me to keep going.”
“The problem is not aging but our culture’s apathy toward helping people age in a way that attends to the whole person,” says Fullen. “Brenda is just one of many project participants given a fresh reason to keep going and discover what it means to age well.”
Fullen says he is surprised by just how much older adults and staff respond to discussions of strengths and resilience. “Aging and age-related care can be hard work,” he says. “Taking the time to ask people what keeps them going changes the discussion from one focused exclusively on problems to one that highlights what makes people resilient. It’s a privilege to facilitate that paradigm shift.”
Fullen believes that properly addressing the many issues of aging is currently the most pressing health-related issue of our time.
“We are facing unprecedented demographic changes related to an aging population. Furthermore, we know that the aging process does not affect all people equally,” says Fullen, pointing to a recent study by Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute that found a 20-year difference in life expectancy depending on what zip code an older adult lives in. “But beyond merely seeing the graying of the population as a problem to be solved, it’s imperative that we learn how to provide care that maximizes what the elder community has to offer,” he says. “The challenge is not only keeping people alive but giving them a life that is abundant and meaningful. People are multifaceted and when psychological, social, and spiritual resources are brought into focus, the aging of the population becomes much more hopeful.”
His Schweitzer Fellowship, says Fullen, has helped him solidify a decision to focus his career on solving the complex problems at the intersection of aging and mental health and wellness. “I hope to use my Ph.D. to create additional programs that are similar to what is taking place at the Center for Senior Health,” he says.