In Brief

Psychological interventions to secure older people's mental and physical well-being are too seldom employed, according to psychologists who spoke at a May 18 briefing on healthy aging in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The briefing, moderated by Michigan State University psychologist Norm Abeles, PhD, was co-sponsored by APA, the Older Women's Health Team of the Congressional Women's Caucus and the Older Americans Caucus. The sponsors hope educating lawmakers about research on mental health and aging will influence policy that affects older adults.

"I don't think there's any more cogent time that we could focus on the needs of the elderly," commented Rep. Carrie Meek (D­Fla.), co-chair of the Older Women's Health Team. Meek urged mental health experts to continually push policy-makers to support research on aging, calling special attention to the need for further research on the health needs of older women and minorities.

Psychologists Mary Starke Harper, PhD, retired from the National Institute of Mental Health, and Paula Hartman-Stein, PhD, of the University of Akron, noted that elderly people with depression, mental retardation and other psychological ills are less likely to be properly diagnosed and treated than are younger people. And when elderly people do receive care for psychological difficulties, Hartman-Stein added, it is usually through primary-care physicians, who are often insufficiently trained to recognize and treat mental health problems.

On the technology front, designers of equipment such as home health-care devices should take into greater account age-related declines in perceptual speed, spatial ability and memory, said Georgia Institute of Technology psychologist Wendy Rogers, PhD.

Recently, Rogers and colleagues calculated that 53 percent of the difficulties older adults reported encountering in their daily lives--from physical limitations to complex cognitive challenges, such as learning how to perform a new medical procedure or decipher insurance forms--could be addressed by providing improved training and instructions or by revamping equipment.

For example, Rogers and her colleagues have found that only 25 percent of older adults correctly followed the manufacturer's video instructions for using a blood glucose meter compared with 75 percent of young people. But when Rogers's team provided instructions that took age-related cognitive changes into account, 90 percent of older adults, and 95 percent of their younger counterparts, successfully completed the procedure.

Research that examines how people interact with technology "has the potential to improve the lives of older individuals," Rogers said. "We're aiming for safer interactions with technologies, and as a result, we can expect increased self-sufficiency and mobility."

That optimism was shared by Rep. Tom Sawyer (D­Ohio), who attended the briefing.

"The problems of aging are significant," Sawyer remarked. "But they are within our grasp if we understand them as simply another avenue in the medical care of all Americans."

--S. CARPENTER