By Pam McDonald

It’s surprising how much our views about aging can either extend or shorten our lifespans. This realization spurred Colin Milner, after nearly a decade of focusing on fitness, to advocating for wellness – in all its dimensions – for older adults. In 2001, he founded the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) and continues to lead this industry in North America.

ICAA seeks to change the way we age, challenge our stereotypes about the aging process, and improve the quality of life for seniors. It connects like-minded senior care professionals, especially in senior living, with cutting-edge research and practical ideas to engage those we serve in meaningful ways in all areas of life. Our recent interview with Colin included the following takeaways. You can listen to the entire interview here.

Ask anyone, do you want to live a better life, and very few people will say no. How you get there is what the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) is all about.

We’re a membership organization that is in 57 countries with about 10,000 organizations that belong, mostly senior living communities – all different types of senior communities.

ICAA came about because there was a gap in the marketplace. There wasn’t a lot out there to help people age well. There’s a lot to address healthcare to help people who need assistance, but not how to avoid that need for assistance. So, in 2001, we launched our organization with a focus on helping to change the way we age. And by changing that, we also change people’s perceptions of older adults themselves. 

It’s All About Perceptions

If you have a negative self-perception, you’ll impact your health, quality of life, and, probably, how long you live. In general, we know that you can take up to 7.6 years off of your life just simply by thinking negatively about your aging process.

On a societal level, I think we need to change our language and, number one, we need to be more visible because we seniors are invisible. When 95% of all marketing dollars are spent on people below the age of 50, you become pretty invisible in the marketplace, and the marketplace drives society. It tells us what we’re all about. 

Investing in Aging Well

I speak to literally a thousand-plus companies a year in this market about how to get involved. The number one comment I get from most people is, we’re not really interested in older people. Still. Still. And, for those who are interested, most of them, to be frank, are doing a bit of a half-assed job. 

Ill-founded Perceptions that Need to Change

It’s not so much about the money. It’s about, well . . . I don’t want to work with old people. And that’s what we want to change. We want to show that older people – it doesn’t matter who you are – still are contributing individuals to society, that they can do a lot of the things that we perceive are just for young people.

Maybe we can’t do it the same. I’m not going to run a hundred-yard sprint at 10.2, but I still want to run, as an example. And if I can’t run, I walk. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be active. I don’t want to explore the world. I don’t want to learn about technology, and all the other perceptions that are ill-founded and need to change.

The Dimensions of Wellness

We talk about the dimensions of wellness. That’s been the basis of what we run our organization on for the last 18, 19 years. We weren’t the originators of the wellness model. That’s been around for a long, long, long time. The challenge has been what people have interpreted wellness as.

When you can see a dog getting what’s called a “wellness shampoo”, I think things begin to go a little bit far.  But really wellness is a multidimensional model that includes the intellectual or the cognitive abilities, physical, social, spiritual, vocational, emotional, and environmental aspects of life. So, we’re addressing the person as a whole instead of just a singular aspect or addressing an acute condition. 

What’s in It for Senior Living

The benefits of membership in ICAA, especially for senior living communities, start with leadership. We have a team that basically does all the research that you need to help drive your business. We create the tools and deliver those in a variety of formats, whether it’s in print in our journal on active aging, or conferences, or through think tanks, industry research, white papers, webinars, virtual summits . . .

We have a long menu of services, but all of them come together for one thing. To help you do a better job, to help you be more informed, to help you make wise decisions instead of relying on social media or the Internet. There you’ve got people distorting facts or being completely erroneous. We believe that the numbers drive your business and, if you’re a wise person, you look at numbers.

From Data to Practical Applications

Ken Dychtwald always said he wasn’t a genius to say, “Hey, the numbers are showing that there’s going to be a vast number of people over the age of 65.” That’s just sheer demographics. But it’s the way you interpret numbers, and that’s what we do. We translate research into practical application. Our most recent is our certificate courses to help educate the staff on what wellness is.

Because about 59% of communities, according to our research last year, see themselves as, in the next five years, being wellness-based communities with care, as opposed to care-based communities with wellness. So, we’re trying to drive that transition with better information, guidelines, education and so forth, so people avoid costly mistakes, which is what being informed actually enables you to do.

Transitioning to Wellness-Based Communities with Care

We’ve done industry benchmarks for three years looking at the benefit of providing wellness within senior communities. What we found was that in independent living, as an example, people stayed 2.7 years longer. We found that 40% of people who were attracted to the community were there because of wellness. We found that the most engaged people within the areas of wellness, we’re actually the best referral sources for the organization. We found that quality of life and satisfaction within the communities were much higher. 

All of this comes together for a very simple thing – it’s not rocket science – if I’m aging well, I’m probably going to be healthier. I’m probably going to be happier and I’m probably going to want to stay with you. We captured those numbers over three years to show that, yes, there is a very significant return for helping people to age well. 

A Significant Return

Now the other return is actually in being relevant. Relevant being that you have technology, that you have services that incoming Baby Boomers are going to want – lifestyle, adventure, all of these different things. It’s the merging of all of these different things happening at once that is really very exciting. 

We provide a lot of research, guidelines, and best practices for members to use, including in their marketing. One of the latest things that we’ve done is partnered with a fitness manufacturer, New Step, to create an awards program called the “Beacon” awards. They recognize the top 25 wellness-based senior living communities in the country. And part of the reason for this was because of this transition that’s taking place. We wanted to highlight organizations that would be beacons for others to learn from. 

How ICAA Helps

ICAA helps its members by making them aware of what other communities are doing – the Beacons; educating your staff – our certificate courses; understanding how to create your wellness blueprint – the guidelines we’ve created with the assistance of 60 very large multi-location operators; and understanding the trends and the research.

The only way to see the picture is to have the full perspective of information. All of these things, when you put them together, create this picture and, the question becomes, do you see the picture or not?

What we’re trying to do is create a wellness culture. It’s not about a center, it’s not about one person, it is about a culture. And all of this information coming together over the last 18, 19 years has been helping to create and move this wellness initiative along to where we are today. 

Active Aging – Engaging Those We Serve

You know, when we first came out, the epitome of wellness for most senior living was a small room in the basement beside a boiler room with donated equipment. Today, the fastest category within our senior living membership are stand-alone wellness centers on their property. We’ve gotten to here, which is past the tipping point. What we really need to become, in my mind, is world-class at helping people age well.

Active aging does not rest with just the activities or life enhancement directors in senior communities. Active aging really means engaging those we serve – in meaningful ways – in life, in all areas of life.