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Learning from veterans about successful ageing

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Successful ageing emphasises a diversity of positive conditions during older age, such as physical fitness and health, optimal cognitive functioning, positive emotional states, and social involvement. An ongoing investigation with older Australian military veterans is developing an evidence base for how to promote successful ageing in this population.

The majority (68.3%) of clients of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs are aged 60 years or older. Many older veterans experience physical, psychological, and social challenges over and above usual age-related changes. Consequently, research and practice have, rightly so, prioritised attending to their complex care needs. But by taking an alternative view, one that accentuates positive ageing dimensions and health promotion, ageing trajectories of veterans can potentially be improved. One Australian study conducted by Phoenix Australia is investigating how to do just that.

The objectives of the Australian veterans healthy ageing study are to understand the aspects of life most valued by veterans (Phase I), and to identify healthy ageing profiles (Phase II). The aim is to develop practical supports to improve veterans’ ageing trajectories. Phase I is complete, and this article describes key findings. Phase II will be completed in late 2020.

In Phase I, veterans aged between 60 and 75 years told us how they define ‘ageing well’. They believe that three broad life domains are important for a good older age.

First is their health. Veterans value their health because it allows them to do the things they want to do. And while they are aware of the benefits of healthy behaviours such as exercise and good nutrition, they (just like the broader population) have varied levels of motivation to engage in them.

Second is social connectedness. Veterans value interacting with people who share a common understanding. Some find connection and comradeship within the veteran community, while others prefer to connect with groups in the broader community. There are varying degrees of sociability – some veterans enjoy a lot of social interaction, while others prefer fewer, more intimate gatherings. Some veterans also mentioned volunteering to support the veteran community as a way of connecting with others.

The third life domain that older veterans believe is important, is being engaged in meaningful activities. Meaningful activities are those that are significant to the individual, and might include things such as coaching a children’s sporting team, being a member of a model building club, and travelling. They bring physical, social, and psychological health benefits. The veterans in the study found a sense of purpose and achievement in their activities, as well as relaxation and enjoyment.

In practical terms, the findings from the study highlight a number of ways in which veterans can be supported to age well. Firstly, by encouraging and supporting them to engage in healthy behaviours. Secondly, when promoting social wellbeing to older veterans, it is important to consult them about their preferences to ensure programs and activities take into account differing social needs. Thirdly, because volunteering is known to have many physical and psychological health benefits for the volunteer, it should be encouraged as a valuable activity to support social connectedness and wellbeing. And fourthly, older veterans should be encouraged to engage in activities that they find meaningful.

By taking a balanced view of the vulnerabilities and strengths of older veterans, and by understanding what they value in later life, we can more effectively support them to age well.

DVA has a range of programs to support healthy ageing.

The Australian veterans healthy ageing study is the basis of a PhD by Loretta Watson – Phoenix Australia and the University of Melbourne. It is supported by a scholarship from the Melbourne Ageing Research Collaboration (MARC) at the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI). Phase I received seed funding from the Hallmark Ageing Research Initiative (HARI) at the University of Melbourne.

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