Gerontology in the news

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More Michigan grandparents are raising grandkids

A proposed change in state law would take the first steps in formalizing support for a growing number of Michiganders raising their grandchildren. State representatives Kathy Crawford and Frank Liberti have sponsored legislation that would take first steps to better recognize and support older Michiganders raising grandchildren. Both bills are before the House’s Families, Children, and Seniors Committee, which Crawford chairs. The state, Crawford said, is already behind in recognizing the critical and exhausting work of grandparents thrust back into full-time parenting. And their numbers are growing. Twice as many grandparents today in Michigan report raising or helping to raise grandchildren than a generation ago — an estimated 120,206 Michiganders in 2019 compared to 58,220 in 1987, according to the survey, called the Older Michigander Needs & Solutions Assessment. Tom Jankowski, associate director for research at Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology, developed questions for the report. The language about caregiving for grandchildren shifted slightly between the first and second surveys, he cautioned. Still, he said, the questions were close enough to roughly capture how the caregiving landscape has grown over time. Child care is expensive, meaning that Michigan’s poorest families often turn to grandparents for help, said Jankowski. Those growing numbers, along with Michigan’s demographic shift toward an older population — 2.4 million Michiganders age 60 or older last year compared to 1.5 million in 1987 — show the stark challenge facing so many families across the state. 
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Protecting seniors from financial exploitation

Addressing what some call “The Crime of the 21st Century” Peter Lichtenberg of Wayne State University delivered an eye-opening presentation on the prevalence of financial exploitation in older adults. And the statistics reveal that it is growing at a rapid rate. In 2013, there were on average 1,300 suspicious activity reports a month, a figure that jumped to 5,700 a month in 2017 with an estimated loss of $1.7 billion in that year alone. “I just saw that millennials are getting scammed at a higher rate than older adults,” said Lichtenberg noting we are all vulnerable, “but the big losses, where you are scammed repeatedly are older adults.” Lichtenberg explained that cognitive impairment and probable Alzheimer’s Disease will affect nearly one out of every five individuals by the time they reach their 80th birthday. That figure jumps to nearly 40 percent by the age of 90. Referring to the insidious onset of the decline Lichtenberg said it often can be hidden. With cognitive aging folks can continue to retain facts, vocabulary and procedural knowledge without showing any signs in those areas, while at the same time losing reaction speed, memory and the ability to problem solve and plan. “They almost self-correct,” he observed changing social routines and curtailing their former hobbies. “It’s easy not to notice.” In the category of theft and scams, seniors can fall victim to various ploys losing their money to con artists, but often times the money is taken by family members, friends and trusted caregivers utilizing abuse of power, financial entitlement and coercion to access funds and even homes. “Just because someone has a cognitive impairment that doesn’t mean they can’t make any decisions,” said Lichtenberg offering a free service to assist with evaluations.
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$3.1 million NIH grant to improve quality of life for African American cancer survivors

African Americans have the lowest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States for most cancers – a problem that is magnified in southeast Michigan. These differences are often due to socioeconomic disparities that result in unequal access to medical care, health insurance, healthy food and more. African Americans who survive cancer also have the shortest survival of any racial/ethnic group in the United States for most cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. A team of researchers from Wayne State University and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute are investigating the combined role that community, interpersonal and individual influences have on the health-related quality of life for African American cancer survivors, and how those influences create racial health disparities between African Americans and white survivors. The team includes Felicity W.K. Harper, Ph.D., associate professor of oncology in the Wayne State School of Medicine and the Karmanos Cancer Institute; Malcolm P. Cutchin, Ph.D., professor in the Institute of Gerontology and the Department of Health Care Sciences in Wayne State’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences; and Hayley Thompson, Ph.D., professor of oncology in the School of Medicine and associate center director for community outreach and engagement at Karmanos. The study, “ARISE: African American Resilience in Surviving Cancer,” is a five-year, $3.1 million project funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health that aims to identify targets of change and inform the development of interventions to address causes of poorer health-related quality of life experienced by African American cancer survivors.
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How technology bridges gaps between healthcare and underserved populations

Steven Ondersma discovered that "only a very small proportion, maybe 10 percent" of the people who need professional care realize that need and have the means to address it. "I've just become really interested in having whole-population effects, rather than helping a few people who might be ready to make use of the treatment and have access to that treatment," says Ondersma, deputy director of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at Wayne State University. Ondersma and others in Michigan who are interested in addressing the social determinants of health have increasingly turned to technology as an answer to that question. Weisong Shi, professor of computer science at Wayne State envisions the potential for technology to bring a doctor's office to those more remote patients. He proposes a vehicle, "just like an ice cream truck," that would allow people to get basic physical tests in their communities, with the results being transmitted back to a provider's office. Asthma disproportionately affects African-Americans nationwide, but in Detroit the problem is particularly pronounced – and often an emergency situation. Karen MacDonell, associate professor in Wayne State’s School of Medicine, has been using technology to improve those outcomes with the Detroit Young Adult Asthma Project. Funded by a series of National Institutes of Health grants, MacDonell began the project over 10 years ago by interviewing young African-American Detroiters about their asthma. She asked participants what strategies would help them adhere to their medication before an emergency arose. "Long story short, they wanted something using technology – something they could have with them, something easy to manage, something brief," she says. MacDonell developed a text messaging program that collects information about a patient's asthma and then sends the patient conversational messages encouraging medication use.
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Age of fraud: are seniors more vulnerable to financial scams?

Scientists looking into age-related financial vulnerability are very interested in physical changes to the aging brain, the way eyesight and hearing can get less keen. In some cases, a new pattern of making mistakes with money may be a harbinger of cognitive bad things to come, the “first thing to go,” as it were. McGill University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng was able to track down 13 elderly scam victims and 13 others equivalent in age, gender and education who had successfully fended off a scam. Spreng’s research found the brains of the two groups were physically different. He noticed this thinning of the part of the brain called the “insula,” which, along with a lot of other things, may help us trigger our “spidey sense,” the hunch that can warn us away from dicey financial situations. Some experts are skeptical about practical applications of research like Spreng’s. Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University, is not a neuroscientist but a psychologist who studies financial decision-making capacity. While he sees the brain scanning as promising, his experience tells him financial acumen and scam-spotting are really complex matters. “There is no one aging pattern,” Lichtenberg said. “You know, some older adults are as good as they were in their fifties and sixties. Others are showing a more significant decline.” Lichtenberg says he has data showing 20 percent of older people admit when they do talk about money with others, it’s out of loneliness. That is, people might engage with a scammer because they want to talk to someone, anyone.

The 5 worst things to say after someone dies—and what to say instead

Around 7,500 people die each day in the United States—one person every 11.5 seconds. By your 50s and 60s, you’ve almost certainly had personal experience with death—a parent’s death, other close family members, and/or personal friends. And yet, when you hear that someone has died, it’s still hard to know what to say to their loved ones. Part of the reason is that seeing the grief and pain of others surrounding death is uncomfortable. You also may be grappling with your own feelings about your experiences. They may also be busy making arrangements, causing it to appear like they’re handling the death particularly well. “Then you might find a few months later that it’s all starting to hit,” says Peter A. Lichtenberg, a clinical psychologist and director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University. “Grief is very variable. It brings out a sense of finality and a sense of helplessness in all of us,” says Lichtenberg. 
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Health grant aims to benefit older minorities in Michigan

Three Michigan universities are using a $3.5 million federal grant renewal for efforts to improve the health of older blacks and other minorities. The National Institutes of Health grant allows the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research (MCUAAAR) to expand its work through 2023. The center's research and education is led by faculty and staff from Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Black residents have higher rates of diabetes, stroke and other diseases than their white counterparts, officials said. Researchers seek to prevent health disparities. The center has focused on Detroit since its 1997 launch, but the latest grant brings aboard Michigan State and expands work into Flint. Goals include establishing a Healthier Black Elders Center in Flint, based on the one in Detroit. According to Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State, MCUAAAR is a catalyst for widespread change. “It has two major aims,” he said. “Increase the number of diverse junior faculty working in aging and health research, and partner with older African Americans in meaningful ways to improve health and well-being.”

Doctor discusses cold weather dangers facing those with dementia

There have been at least three cases in the past two days in Michigan where people with dementia or early onset dementia walked out in the cold and died. Psychologist Dr. Peter Lichtenberg, the director of the Institute of Gerentology at Wayne State University, tells Michigan News Network many people with dementia do some kind of wandering. “Some of it the need for stimulation, and some of it is sort of an idea that comes to them to go somewhere, and then losing that train of thought,” Lichtenberg said. “It’s incredibly dangerous with the way the weather is now.”