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Guest Blog Interview: Bob Coen of Carroll County


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecently I interviewed one of our CoP members who is from Carroll County, Bob Coen. Bob shared some of his work experience on aging in place and disability issues and shared some of his insights with me. I knew Bob had a long history of examining issues related to disability access and had insights based on his work and his personal experiences. Bob worked 36 years for the federal government, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, has been a contractor for the Marine Corps and more recently with the Commission for Aging and Disabilities (COAD) in Carroll County.

Bob was involved with a disability awareness team at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, as he had experience from coping with his own Multiple Sclerosis and he also started working with Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME). See Working with VME was fascinating because engineers helped to invent all sorts of resources to help individuals with disabilities live more independently. Projects ranged from the mundane to very complex. For example, VME designed and built an attaching mechanism to allow a carpenter who had lost his hand in an industrial accident to use a drill and other devices to continue to work.

As his experience expanded Bob also met individuals working on similar issues up in Harford County and started involvement with the County Commission on Disabilities there. He was responsible for updating their web page by providing web addresses for helping organizations for the disabled in the Harford County area.

After a home accident, Bob and his wife chose to relocate from Harford County to Carroll county to live closer to their daughter and family. He and his wife were looking to find a place that was easier to take care of their large home and property. While looking for options-it was important that the new home location was accessible. Finding this type of site was difficult. Bob finds swimming to be an ideal exercise for his MS so finding a place with a pool was a real benefit. Ultimately he and his wife chose a CCRC, Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster because it offered accessibility and the pool, and has 50 home as well as apartment style residences. When we are seeking maximum independence and support it is critical to carefully examine all angles to make sure all our needs and wishes for our new community can be met.

Once he relocated to Carroll County, he volunteered and was appointed a Commissioner on the Carroll County Commission on Aging and disabilities (COAD). As a result, he volunteered to work on an Aging in Place initiative in the county. This led to meeting with resource people at McDaniel College. He met with Dr. Martin, the Director of the Center for the Study of Aging and works as a member of what they call the Gang of Five and they are both also collaborating with leaders in Carroll County to expand Aging in Place to a potential Village or Aging in Community Model for the County. The gang has developed a mission statement, a list of values and a needs assessment to be distrusted to the over 65 community in the county so that we can focus on what this population really needs. We are working with a local artist to develop a logo for our efforts. On October 13, a forum will be held at McDaniel College Center to introduce the County to our efforts.


Building Community & Careful Communication: What can we learn about accessibility from thought leaders on disability access?

We all have insights, opinions, preferences, something to say about how we wish to be treated by others and how we live our daily and hourly lives. Considering the personal story from Bob Coen, part of our Community of Practice Leaders who live in Carroll County, I found his insights very useful. Our stories and insights can guide us to deeper reflection about how we plan to age in community.

Living in our community, in our neighborhoods, in our interactions with groups we find that our social connections can offer support or create stress or frustration. Sometimes it is wonderful, easy, effortless, to be part of a social group and sometimes more challenging. Sometimes communication style, personality and behavior influence this greatly.   Often the successful connections arise with careful communication, our use of words or language that either invite or push away others. I often think about how to make my language more inclusive.

Our social interactions are pivotal because social connection helps us feel a sense of belonging and is often essential to our care, as we have increased times of vulnerability. The tricky thing about aging is that our bodies change and our needs shift. How do we adapt to these changes, what is our self-perception and our flexibility? Our need for help and helpers can change in an instant. Just a little fall, perhaps a stroke, and suddenly we are more vulnerable, and need to navigate with more assistance. Sometimes we need help from those who are our family and friends as our unpaid helpers and also from people who are very different than us.

Anyone who has been a caregiver or managed increased care for themselves recognizes the effectiveness of your care plan is dependent on multiple social interactions, on good and skillful communication and a careful plan to keep things running smoothly.   Whether we live alone in our home without a “Village support “ and rely only on family and neighbors, or whether we live in a more structured group setting, assisted living or a CCRC-how we fare is often about our connections and communications with those around us.

How do we plan to manage living in the manner we wish to live, with maximum independence? Sometimes connecting to social interactions requires literal access into doorways and rooms. Disability access is important to understand as we approach aging in community.

I spent ten years of my work life working in two states for government programs managing rehabilitation programs working closely with amazing advocates for disability rights efforts. I listened and learned and since those years many more improvements have been made to make living independently better for individuals coping with various disabling situations.  Some individuals avoid the term “disability” others use it.   We need to understand what happens if you have had a life long disability and then grow older and decide to “age in place/age in community”? And what happens if you have not experienced a disability situation until you are already older and living in the independent refuge you have created in your own home in your wonderful village community?

In the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I found one article about self-perception of disability, When Do Older Adults Become “Disabled”? Social and Health Antecedents of Perceived Disability in a Panel Study of the Oldest Old.

In the study, researchers examined how and when individuals determine the health decline they experience creates an identity of being “disabled.” Individuals used social and health criteria to subjectively rate their own disability status. Cessation of driving and receipt of home health care influenced older adults’ perceptions of their own disability. However, having a strong social network seemed to slow the rate of this self-labeling. Another positive plug for building our social connections our networks of caring.

These insights into our self-perception and our social connections can help us as we work together to design lives where we have meaning and social support and adequate personal control over our later-life, adequate access to the world around us. The more we understand about the impact of our communication, about how important our social relations can be, the more prepared we are to promote the dignity of all so that all may thrive within our communities. Hopefully we can find a way to use our language to support all of us as we age in our community and avoid any attitudes or phrases that might further stigmatize and marginalize people who, by virtue of their disabilities might need to make choices and find accommodations that appear to be a bit different than we consider aging well in community.

Thank goodness it is possible to grow, change and learn throughout the lifespan!

CITE: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, June 2006; vol. 47, 2: pp. 126-141.                                                                                     When Do Older Adults Become “Disabled”? Social and Health Antecedents of Perceived Disability in a Panel Study of the Oldest Old Jessica A. Kelley-Moore, John G. Schumacher, Eva Kahana, and Boaz Kahana

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