Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

A lesson in successful aging

Written by Chidinma Nwawueze, BA candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Photo: Matt Bennett

Throughout this summer program, our Aging & Neurological Diseases cohort has heard from a number of guest speakers on a variety of topics related to aging – from disorders that become more prevalent as you age, such as stroke and dementias, to the various ways that research is conducted in the aging field. One of the greatest takeaways I have gained is insight into what it means to age successfully, and how different that looks for every person.

I have had the opportunity to work with Lenise Cummings-Vaughn, MD, the medical director of the Stay Healthy Clinic, and assist in her project regarding identifying the connections between social determinants of health, comorbidities, and hospital readmission risk. In my time at the clinic, I have observed Cummings-Vaughn in a patient assessment. During this time, I not only had the chance to see how she interacted with the patient and their family, but also the way she discussed successful aging with them. In her conversations, instead of focusing on specific concerns and how they would affect the health of the patient, she adjusted the discussion to center on the patient’s overall well-being and goals for their care. Although the patient was in the early stages of dementia, they expressed a desire to remain at home with their family members.

Using this information, a healthcare plan was developed between both physician and patient to help them achieve this goal, with small, attainable steps in between that were mutually agreed upon, and that the patient’s family was aware of. Being able to watch this interaction provided me with a valuable experience that I will take with me into my future endeavors.

As someone who aspires to be a physician, I would want my care to be patient-focused, and to emphasize the importance of personal goals and values. In particular, aging is already casted in a negative light in regard to both physical and cognitive decline, and the potential loss of independence – especially when coupled with neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and stroke. Too often, aging is thought of as a process to be stalled as long as possible, or even reversed completely. However, this observation, along with the other talks I have had the opportunity to participate in, have highlighted for me that successful aging is attainable, regardless of circumstance. What successful aging actually means is different for every person – for some, the goal may be more physical, like having the ability to go on a walk in the mornings, while others may desire to live with family instead of residing in a care facility. No matter the goal, with the right support and team of advocates, we can all aspire to achieve our own version of successful aging.