Aging Journey, A Work In-Progess with Michelle Olsen PhD, LCAT, ATR-BC

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Michelle Olson, PhD, LCAT, ATR-BC
Michelle Olson, PhD, LCAT, ATR-BC

Please join me today in welcoming GeroPros founder Dr. Michelle Olson, a social gerontologist and creative arts therapist. Michelle has spent over two decades working closely with older adults in eldercare settings and also with their care partners in the community. In fact, it was Michelle’s desire to empower older adults and improve their care and support those who care for them, that propelled her to obtain a PhD in gerontology leadership.

As a gerontologist, Michelle recognizes that older people are all unique individuals from various walks of life with unique experiences over their lifecourse–these experiences and perceptions contribute to one’s aging process and well being.

As a licensed and board-certified and registered clinician, Michelle recognizes that the emotional, mental and spiritual health needs of older adults are often not given enough attention in fast-paced, medicalized settings where daily tasks are often prioritized–and challenging conversations and emotions are pushed aside.

Michelle’s mindful, empathic and holistic approach to eldercare includes slowing down, paying close attention, empowering older people and carers and providing opportunities for greater connections.

Hanh Brown: [00:00:00] Today, my guest is Michelle Olsen.

[00:01:14] She’s been working in the aging field for over two decades. She is very passionate about healthy, creative, and mindful aging and ending inequities, such as ageism, isolation, and stigmas around dementia. She strives to empower older adults, giving choices and a voice to enhance their mental, emotional, social, and physical well being.

[00:01:38] She provides consulting for long-term settings, staff training in corporate consulting. She’s also a licensed board certified in registered creative arts therapists and visual artists as a social gerontologist. Her research includes arts informed approaches, examining long-term care policies, particularly contemplated end of life care practices.

[00:02:04] Her research also includes advancing person directed care, combating institutional and internalize ageism, and creating dementia friendly and intergenerational communities. Well, hi, Michelle, how are you? 

Michelle Olsen: [00:02:18] I’m great. How are you?

Hanh Brown: [00:02:21] I’m doing great. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. So I appreciate your time to be here.

[00:02:26] So tell us, where are you from? What are you doing in senior living? And tell us about your journey.

Michelle Olsen: [00:02:31] Yeah, originally I am from Southeastern Virginia, but now I’m living in the Hudson Valley area of New York. So I have been in senior living for the last 22 years. Actually it started with an internship with veterans and aren’t there be internship, which turned into a position and that was it.

[00:02:51] Like I was sold. This was where I needed to be. So it was pretty clear that I had worked with children and middle-aged adults, but that it just didn’t resonate with me as older adults. So I really am most passionate about long-term senior living long-term care, but I do work in several different types of settings.

[00:03:11] So I work in independent living assisted living homes, elder day centers, that type of thing. Yeah. So that’s kind of my journey to where I am now. I’m also coming entrepreneur. So I left my full-time long-term care position to do consulting work. So that’s how I get to travel and see all types of settings and meet all different people in my journey.

Hanh Brown: [00:03:37] So it sounds like you found your passion in serving the baby boomers. So what impact are you making in senior living?

Michelle Olsen: [00:03:44] So it ended up that I’m making a couple things come to mind that I’m really, really passionate about. So I’m a fierce advocate for person directed care. And I know this is something that boomers are also passionate about, but it’s really not just for the boomers, but for all older adults within these elder care settings.

[00:04:02] So it includes people, not only given choices throughout all aspects of their daily lives, but also to ensure. That people are included in these aspects of these preferences, you know, and I can also recognize the inherent challenges that are so common in elder care, and it tends to focus on tasks and these rigid schedules, but as the ours are entering these care communities, they are not going to let us dictate what, when and how their lives are going to be led.

[00:04:33] And I see this, I see this with some of my clients, in fact, One woman comes to mind, a woman that I’ve known for several years, she’s a boomer and she does not hesitate to speak up for herself. And what I really appreciate about her is not only does she speak up for herself, but she’s also an advocate for others in our community.

[00:04:51] So there’s a lot of people in this large home who can no longer speak for themselves. And she does, she does her part to kind of speak up and. It’s empowering for her. It’s inspiring for me. And I believe it’s really all of our jobs to be this kind of an advocate.

Hanh Brown: [00:05:06] Very true. We need to be advocates for the baby boomers.

[00:05:09] They are our parents and grandparents. So what concerns does she bring up?

Michelle Olsen: [00:05:14] If somebody is not receiving the care or the attention that they should be getting on a timely manner, she’s on it. She recognizes details and myself as a consultant, I can go in and I can see these things, but she can really be that voice.

[00:05:30] To go right up to the CEO and say, Hey, I recognize this. Or I see this, she’ll notice things in the environment that she would like to see improved. And she makes great points. And she had a loved one also in that same place, in that same home. So she really is quite an ABIC and inspiring one for sure.

 Hanh Brown: [00:05:49] I see.

[00:05:50] So when she sees an opportunity for improvement, she brings awareness all the way to the top to be considered. And, uh, to be resolved and that’s great. We have the responsibility to provide quality of life and quality of care. So absolutely.

Michelle Olsen: [00:06:06] I agree. Huh? I agree so much. Like instead of seeing it as a criticism, say, Hey, you know, this is something we can do better.

[00:06:14] This is an opportunity to do better. And we really have to kind of look step back and look at our homes from a position of. Could we be comfortable there? Would we be comfortable sitting in that wheelchair or not moving, or have someone just kind of take you and move you somewhere else? Like it really makes you think if we put ourselves in the shoes of others, what does that say about the home?

[00:06:35] If we just put ourselves in the other person’s position and be a little bit more empathetic, that way

 Hanh Brown: [00:06:41] the boomers, these are our parents and grandparents that have been uprooted from their homes and hopefully not too far from their families. Now their freedom is very limited. They cannot drive and perhaps they might be using a wheelchair.

[00:06:57] So now they are in a new setting, maybe still having to adapt to the new routine and schedule. Uh, so it’s very humbling and very unselfish for both caregivers and the baby boomers who go through this

Michelle Olsen: [00:07:09] that’s right. And I think it really kind of comes back to how we. Train, you know, and how we lead by example.

[00:07:18] So if someone’s used to a certain routine, their whole life for, uh, just thinking of a woman now who her whole life, she just walked, she wanted to be walking every day. That was her routine. She was a earth mama, as she used to say, and she loved to be outdoors and particularly in the woods. And I remember one day walking in, there was a party getting ready to start a big entertainment.

[00:07:43] Celebration of some kind and she wanted to take a walk, but that wasn’t the plan of the day. Right? Like he was supposed to go and sit and enjoy this party was she wanted to walk. So she was told to sit down and she flipped out. He just was not having it. And my heart literally like just, I almost felt it that pain of that loss of freedom that you were just talking about, because it’s kind of like.

[00:08:07] Forcing people into our routine. And it’s a lot, it’s a lot to think about and some changes that are not impossible, we can do them.

Hanh Brown: [00:08:14] You know, I respect the events and the organized activities. You need to have structure in the community at the same time as we age. And we have complexities in our daily routine, there needs to be some flexibility because sometimes our routines may not fit into the community schedule.

[00:08:33] I see a lot of that in my mom when she was seventies, she’s now in her mid nineties, it gets more Richard, as you get older and the residents let’s say the body clock or your schedule does not necessarily align with the schedule, the community. And it’s a lot. For the staff to take that into consideration.

Michelle Olsen: [00:08:54] As I said, I don’t think it’s impossible. I think it’s challenging because of the way things are often set up. And I do see things improving, but you know, as their volunteers or their interns, are there, is there anybody who can help because if, rather than forcing someone into a box, right? Like sit down, we’re going to have a party and you’re going to enjoy it.

[00:09:12] What if we said, all right, Hey, here’s, you know, hon, she’s going to take you for a walk. So it would have alleviated that right away. And we’re going to go walk together and just get some fresh air together. It is challenging, but I definitely don’t think it’s impossible. And we just kind of have to open up our minds a little bit and how we’re currently functioning in these homes.

 Hanh Brown: [00:09:30] It’s a lot for caregivers to understand that many people, you know, what we learned from my family is that we’re so blessed to have many siblings and my siblings are the ones that need to understand my mom’s temperament. So it’s a blessing that she has a schedule and we all work to accommodate that.

[00:09:50] And it’s really sad when you see people without family support, it’s very lonely and it can be isolated. And my suggestion is family members should always be engaged as much as possible outside of their work and outside of their family, because their presence can not be replaced by anyone.

Michelle Olsen: [00:10:10] Right. Well, first of all, I agree that is a blessing that your mother has children that are close by and it can help in her daily routines.

[00:10:19] And that is a blessing.

Hanh Brown: [00:10:20] So what is your role in the industry?

Michelle Olsen: [00:10:22] Yeah, so my role as a consultant, so usually I’m brought in to do art therapy with older adults. That’s mostly what I do. Sometimes I do staff training, which is also great and it’s important, but for many reasons, But generally my role is to come in as an art therapist and I work, as I said, in different types of settings.

[00:10:42] So I really, um, allowing these opportunities to come out for people to express themselves, to share their feelings, their emotions, their thoughts, the laughter. Really connections between people. And it’s really important for me to have these opportunities available because you know, in our daily lives, as you were just saying with our relationships, we can talk with other people.

[00:11:04] We can express ourselves, but what if there’s not many opportunities? So this is one way the creative arts. And I use poetry music, some mindful practices with the people that I work with. And so, yeah, so that’s just some of the ways that I kind of help out and senior living.

 Hanh Brown: [00:11:21] like a social cafe, offering activities for the baby boomers to engage in, allowing them to.

Michelle Olsen: [00:11:27] Right. Definitely. And it doesn’t have to be for people who were formerly artists or who were creatives in their former life, although it’s wonderful for those that. Are artists, but it’s really amazing to witness what can happen when we just provide these opportunities for connection and expression.

[00:11:46] Again, it’s empathy. It’s deep listening. It’s really bringing people together and yeah, I love it all these years later.

Hanh Brown: [00:11:54] Yeah. It’s increasingly difficult. If your loved ones is in the later stage of dementia.

Michelle Olsen: [00:12:00] Sometimes. Yeah, you see resistance,

Hanh Brown: [00:12:02] you gotta have empathy and patience. You need to understand why they’re resisting as opposed to being upset that they’re resisting.

 Michelle Olsen: [00:12:10] Right. There’s a reason for the resistance. And the other thing I would say is, is to like accept that, you know, we’re not perfect either we try something, it doesn’t work, try something else. And I think we have to really kind of be kind to ourselves as well. I hear a lot of times. Cause I work with care partners when I do work out in the community, like memory cafes.

[00:12:31] And I do a lot of work where people who might be living with dementia and their care partner they’re together and they connect in a whole different way. And I could see sometimes the frustration and sometimes the impatience. And I think that if we just accept that. And say, okay, this is hard. Like you just said, this is not easy.

[00:12:49] Take a breath and maybe just try a different way. Just being kind of creative and resilient in how we approach something that we want to introduce.

Hanh Brown: [00:12:58] It is truly full circle. You know, when we were younger, they took care of us. And as their health declines, we as grown children need to be taking care of them.

[00:13:09] And it’s almost like they’re. Toddler age because they do need day to day and reminder help.

Michelle Olsen: [00:13:16] That’s right. Exactly. So I think we might have been the pioneer network. I can’t remember where I read it, but it was a great article kind of on that where it’s not really necessarily the golden rule, like. Treat others as you want them to treat, how does it go treat others as you would want to be treated, but it’s really should be treat others how they want to be treated.

[00:13:33] And I’m like, that’s brilliant because it’s brilliant. So yeah, I want to be treated the way I want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated the way my child wants to be treated or my sister. So we’re all different and that’s kind of the whole premise of that person directed care. And that could be with our own relatives.

[00:13:50] Looking at them as a unique person. Do you think.

Hanh Brown: [00:13:53] the generation that are in their thirties and forties, do they understand what is upcoming and caring for their loved ones?

Michelle Olsen: [00:14:00] That’s a good question because I am 50, so I’m not really, I’m not really sure what, you know, the more of a millennial generation feels I happen to read today that our generation is the one caring for their children and their aging parents.

[00:14:16] Like we are in the highest percentage there. So it’s our generation, but yeah, so that’s a good question. It might be harder for them, but then again, I can picture a couple families that I work with in the community. The children are very young they’re in their twenties and they help care for their father who is living with Alzheimer’s.

[00:14:37] And they’re amazing, like, absolutely amazing, like the love and the compassion and just the joy that they all share together. It’s really something to witness, you know, sense of humor, I think is huge. I think we have to have a sense of humor. Oh yes. Yes. Good question. I have to think about, but you know, I can think of a couple millennials that are really incredible.

 Hanh Brown: [00:15:01] You know, when I was in my thirties and forties, I remember my life to be too full or too busy with my kids’ activities. You know, I really did not consider my parents’ health and who and how we would take care of them as their health declined. It occurred to me when my dad had brain tumor, which was about.

[00:15:20] Four and a half, five years ago. Unfortunately we don’t think about these things until we are dealt with the crisis.

Michelle Olsen: [00:15:27] right now, do you mean your health choices or you mean how you treated your mother?

Hanh Brown: [00:15:30] Both knowing the senior living options in determining which one would be a good fit for your loved ones?

[00:15:37] And of course the affordability.

Michelle Olsen: [00:15:39] That’s right. Oh my gosh. That is so true. And I think it is normal. Like, I do feel an aging avoiding society because we don’t want to think about getting older because getting older equates to death and we don’t want to think of those things, but in reality, it’s like if we do.

[00:15:56] At a very young age kind of recognize that aging is living it’s normal and that might help prepare us more and open up the opportunities for conversations. So we can ask her parents before there’s a crisis. What would you. And, you know, it, should you get dementia or get an illness that you can’t care for yourself any longer, but I think you’re right.

[00:16:18] And it, now we know, right. So we now know we do better, but now we also can teach our children that and kind of go forward and our grandchildren to have these conversations and get that education that you talked about and get that a little bit earlier.

Hanh Brown: [00:16:33] It’s true. You know, I’m saying all of this because I’m in my mid fifties, but when I was in my thirties and forties, I didn’t have the wisdom or the empathy.

[00:16:43] I was to focus on my own life. As you age, you do gain life experiences and you would have gone through some good times and certainly dark time. So you become more active.

Michelle Olsen: [00:16:54] Right. And that’s such a great thing, right? Like that’s a really one of the great things about aging,

Hanh Brown: [00:16:59] unfortunate that society has such a negative attitude towards aging and the age as we get into our later years.

[00:17:07] We should, I think have an internal strength and inner spirit that would drive us to be our moral compass and not so much driven by the cultural expectations.

Michelle Olsen: [00:17:20] Yeah. So that is when you’re talking about making an impact and senior living like that is. Aside from either the person directed care or person directed care that fighting ageism really is something that we can all do.

[00:17:32] And like you said, living our best life, but also recognizing that our own ages, feelings through our own beliefs and biases, because we all have them and it’s like kind of work in progress. I catch myself all the time thinking these thoughts. About aging or, you know, I have to actually stop it, like make note of it and stop it.

[00:17:52] So, but also the second part of that is then to kind of speak up and educate other people and younger generations.

Hanh Brown: [00:17:58] you know, I think it’s important to educate the younger generation, be aware of the noise and clutter, but don’t succumb to it. No. I just, like I tell my teenage kids, they’re college kids and they graduate from college already now.

[00:18:13] But anyway, so when they were younger in their adolescent years, you know, be aware of the peer pressure, we all know that there’s a lot of stuff going on during that time, the adolescent years be aware, rise above it and mind your business. And also you’re in the midst of the peer pressure, but you don’t have to be under the pressure.

[00:18:33] And I think that applies to all of us be aware of ageism, but don’t give it power over you.

Michelle Olsen: [00:18:41] Yeah. I mean, that’s an interesting analogy. I like that. So rather than hiding it, you know, when you, your kids go off to college and you know, there’s going to be drinking and it’s going to be things that are happening, like that happens in college campuses, you’re not going to be like, well, just, it doesn’t happen.

[00:18:55] You’re saying, look, this is happening. You don’t need to get wrapped up in it. And the same thing applies to these beliefs. Like, yeah, they’re out there. It’s common, but we don’t have to be a part of it. We don’t have to buy into it. I really like that.

Hanh Brown: [00:19:08]  So what changes have you seen in the senior living industry over the years?That’s great. 

Hanh Brown: [00:19:08] So what changes have you seen in the senior living industry over the years?

Michelle Olsen: [00:19:12] Some of the things that I have seen change. Well, I definitely feel there’s a lot of positive changes since I first came into senior living in regards to how we care for people in these settings. We’re a lot more mindful of language. We’re a lot more mindful of things like restraints, you know, so more medicalized stuff.

[00:19:35] So I feel like we’re getting better and I still feel like we have a lot more to go. With, particularly in these settings where there’s a lot of people in one place, you know, as we talked about earlier, it’s challenging to try to meet the needs of so many different people from all different walks of life, all kind of put into one location.

[00:19:55] So that is a challenge that needs addressing. And to me, it’s like kind of an environmental issue. Is this even feasible? How can we ask people, how can we ask staff and caregivers to meet all these needs and actually put them into regulatory practice, but then we’re not really supporting them because it’s not easy for the older adults, but certainly not for the staff, caring for them.

[00:20:15] I feel like staff often get a bad rap, but when you have 40 people and there’s only two or three of you to care for them, right. And you’re supposed to meet their daily needs and preferences, that’s certainly isn’t easy. So I feel we have a ways to go. That hasn’t really changed.

Hanh Brown: [00:20:29] I always ask this. What does the agent process mean to you?

Michelle Olsen: [00:20:34] Aging. Well, that’s easy. It’s easy. It’s living. That’s a very quick answer for you, hon. So we’re all aging. And as I said, I turned 50. And so I’m practicing that I’m aging, I’m getting older and

[00:20:54] I’m a work in progress. It’s a journey. I’m not always perfect. I sometimes have those thoughts that pop in my head.

Hanh Brown: [00:21:00] I love it. Aging journey is a work in progress. How true

Michelle Olsen: [00:21:04] that’s it right on. Yeah. Cause that’s what we’re doing. Right. There’s like a freedom and a celebration in aging too. I think. So. I don’t know, to tell you the truth, I’m pretty excited to see what the next few decades bring.

[00:21:18] Like, not that I’m without problems and some pain or whatever, but it’s like, I’m pretty excited about it. You know, bring it on. Let’s see. I mean, I had children really late, so my children are not that old. Like I still have a teenager and a soon to be 11 year old because just that’s how my life worked out.

[00:21:34] Right. I had him a little later, so it’s also interesting because I’m more exhausted than I was when I was in my twenties and thirties. But like for instance, I decided to go back to school. So I graduated at 50 and it’s like, you know what, here’s the congratulation. Thank you. Thank you. So I’m teaching my kids.

[00:21:51] Hey, you know what? Your life is a whole, like we said, it, aging is a journey. So don’t think that you can ever not do something because of your age. If you have it in your heart to do it, and you’re having a strong desire to do it, do it. 

Hanh Brown: [00:22:04] So have you thought about your own plans and maybe plans for your parents with senior living options?

Michelle Olsen: [00:22:11] I have one parent left and she is so stubborn. She doesn’t really want it. She’s one of those people doesn’t want to talk about aging. She’s just like, Oh, I’m old. Like she, I recognize that she’s old. That’s what she says, but she doesn’t really want any help in planning. She’s that type of personality. But for me, I.

[00:22:30] Definitely have, because I’m so aware of aging and growing older, I mean, I have, you know, a living will and the goodness my living will and my advanced directive or power of attorney in place and advanced directives in place. I mean, I know so far Hahn is my husband has a death set. Okay. Yeah. The music, all my music choices so that when my time comes like these are the plans, the music you’re going to play at my party, this is what we’re going to do.

[00:22:57] That is awesome. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So it’s like, I don’t avoid it. We talk about it. I talk with my kids about it, you know, not in a sad way, but like this is life, you know, I try to explain in the best way I can, that there’s all just different stages of life. So I’m very open with that and have things in place.

[00:23:16] Well, Hey, I’m so glad .

Hanh Brown: [00:23:18] that we connected and had the opportunity to talk and share a life stories and thank you so much.

Michelle Olsen: [00:23:23] Right? Right. Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a real pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you so much time.

Hanh Brown: [00:23:28] Hey, good talking to you, Michelle. Best to you.





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