Healthy aging in Anchorage is dependent on financial resources, culture of inclusion


September 1, 2019

Courtesy Britteny M. Howell

Senior focus groups around Anchorage participated in a large card-sorting activity, using a method called Concept Mapping, to generate ideas of healthy aging. Responses were condensed in stages, from 100 initial ideas to a final 12, illustrated here.

In February 2019, UAA researchers conducted a small study to determine how older adults and local stakeholders in Anchorage think about the concept of "healthy aging." We wanted to know: what do people think that term means? How can we achieve it? What are the opportunities for healthy aging in Anchorage? And what are the roadblocks to aging healthily in the Last Frontier?

To try to answer these questions, faculty and students recruited older adults and other stakeholders who have knowledge and interest in the health of older adults in Anchorage to participate in a study. This research involved six different focus groups held around Anchorage and a large card-sorting activity, using a method called Concept Mapping. Fifty-three participants (14 men, 39 women) worked together to generate a total of 234 ideas of healthy aging. The research team condensed these down into 100 concepts written on cards, then invited participants back to sort these cards. Forty-two participants (12 men, 30 women) worked with researchers to sort these 100 concept cards into a smaller number of conceptually similar groups of ideas at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center.

The research team took these card-sorting results and analyzed them using multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis to create a visual "concept map" of how people in Anchorage think about healthy aging.

All 100 ideas coalesced into 12 "clusters" on the map. Our analysis computed the location of each idea based on how often ideas were sorted together. Ideas positioned closer together were often sorted into the same group by multiple participants. Likewise, the distance between points on the map increases when ideas were not often (or ever) sorted together by participants.

Study participants identified factors both within and outside their ability to control. Concepts largely within an individuals' ability to control included possessing a positive attitude and good mental health, physical and financial security, lifelong learning, maintaining social relationships, and having a purpose in life.

Participants often stated that they did not have enough information when they were younger about how to adequately save for retirement. They expressed concern over their fixed incomes and their

ability to stretch their savings to cover some of life's necessary expenses. Such financial hardships sometimes have a negative effect on people's ability to maintain a positive attitude, good mental health, and even to maintain social relationships.

Factors often outside of a person's ability to control were frequently spoken about with frustration. Participants felt they did not always have necessary access to high-quality and affordable medical care and senior services, healthy food and safe physical activity, information about end-of-life planning, appropriate housing options, a physically accessible city, and a community that values their elders. Another common thread in these "clusters" was that people mentioned the importance of having financial resources in each of these concepts. Adequate resources are not needed just to access medical care, senior services, healthy food, and safe physical activity opportunities, but also city and state funding is required to make the city physically accessible. Such funding demonstrates the importance our administrators place on including and respecting the contributions and needs of older adults in our community.

Participants also reported several positive aspects of aging in Anchorage. For example, participants reported being engaged in local activities, churches and civic duties as well as pursuing opportunities for lifelong learning. Several participants made friends and learned new skills at local senior and community centers. Many participants reported the joy and sense of purpose and meaning their families created in their lives. Additionally, several older adults reported greater time to pursue their interests and hobbies upon retirement, such as travel or volunteering. It was clear that older adults in this study continued to contribute positively to their families, neighborhoods and community after leaving the workforce.

Planning ahead

The results of this study can help experts and policy-makers prioritize senior service and support needs in Anchorage. The research team is in the process of crafting phase II of the project where 50 older adults will be asked to rank the importance and feasibility of achieving these aspects of healthy aging in Anchorage (please contact us if you are interested in participating).

We hope that the concept map produced by this pilot study in Anchorage will be used to further inform the community and policy-makers about healthy aging and encourage collaborations to sustain further action. If you would like to take further action, now is a good time to write to your legislators and other local officials to ensure adequate funding for senior services and benefits programs that can have a significant effect on the health of all of Alaska's citizens as we age.

This research was funded by a UAA Faculty Development Award (FY19) and a UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning (CCEL) CESA Award.

Britteny M. Howell, PhD is a Credentialed Professional Gerontologist (CPG), Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP), Assistant Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the Division of Population Health Science, and the founder/faculty mentor of the UAA Healthy Aging Research Laboratory ( Zack Bauder is a senior in the Bachelor of Natural Sciences program with a pre-med focus, a member of the UAA Healthy Aging Lab, and plans to attend medical school after graduation.


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