Growing old is not easy. And it also is not simple. There is a lot of learn about how you can care for your changing body, how to keep and grow social connections, and how to manage your legal and financial life. But where can an older adult learn these things?
The Woodbury Senior Community Center in Litchfield County Connecticut, has embraced one solution. Since 2017, it has been hosting a 10-session training program that is part of a national initiative called the Aging Mastery Program. Created by the National Council on Aging, AMP lessons have been taught to about 20,000 participants at about 500 sites across the country. NCOA has an ambitious goal of reaching 500,000 seniors by this time next year, says Susan Stiles, Senior Director of Product Development and Strategy.
The idea is to bring small groups of older adults together for weekly in-person classes. The core curriculum includes topics such as exercise, sleep, healthy eating, medication management, falls prevention, financial strategies, relationship building, and advance planning. It also includes additional classes beyond the core curriculum, including programming for family caregivers. Classes often are taught by local experts who serve as guest lecturers.
Woodbury senior services director Loryn Ray is a huge fan. “This is a game-changer,” she says, “It really makes a difference in people’s lives.”
She loves the AMP’s focus on longevity as a gift, rather than a burden, as well as its practical benefits. “We are trying to change behaviors,” Ray says, “We want people to take home action steps.”
AMP has an in-home version. But, mostly, it is based on group classes. And that makes it more than an opportunity for participants to learn new skills. “Because they become friends, we see them bond outside the class,” Ray says, “Some centers even offer alumni clubs.” Woodbury runs follow-up elective classes for grads of the basic program.
Carolyn Barbieri, who is in her late 70s, says the program helped her both ways. She says she picked up some important tips. For instance, “I learned I did not drink enough water, and about the importance of hydration.” Just as important, she says, “I made a lot of new friends. It brought me out of a depression.”
Both Ray and Barbieri praise one specific initiative that urges participants to keep a “gratitude journal”—a regular diary noting people to whom they are grateful. Thanks to the journal, says Barbieri, “I started feeling pretty wonderful.”
Woodbury runs two 10-week sessions a year. Participants have ranged in age from their 60s to 92, and two-thirds who begin the program complete it—an unusually high retention rate. Nationally, about 80 percent finish the program, NCOA reports.
Ray says she sees a broad range of participants—couples and singles, women and men, and, she says, people in “every income and educational bracket.”
Local AMP programs are run by senior centers, retirement communities, faith communities, and community colleges. NCOA also is looking to partner with hospitals, health systems, and insurers—steps that would dramatically increase participation. NCOA charges the groups that run the local program a licensing fee as well as per-participant materials fee.
Early research suggests Amp may benefit participants, though it is not clear by how much. One study found that participants did more physical exercise and began care planning. And another reported that attending the program may have been associated with better mental health status. But neither found the program produced significant improvements in overall health or well-being.
AMP is partially supported by several non-profits and foundations, including the Anthem Foundation, the NextFifty Initiative, and the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.
It is easy to imagine a skeptic wondering why he has to go to school to learn how to grow old. The answer is: He doesn’t. But if he wants to learn how to grow old well, a few classes like this can’t hurt.