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Aging with a Disability: Flipping the Script of the Healthy Aging Paradigm

It isinevitable that as people age, they will acquire limitations and disabilities. Conventional
wisdom says that the longer a person can avoid disability as they grow old, the
healthier they will be. Many Canadians age
disability, meaning that they will acquire conditions and limitations as
they grow old. But what of seniors who age
a disability? Cerebral palsy and spina bifida are acquired during or even
prior to birth; spinal cord injuries can occur at any point in one’s lifespan
due to a traumatic accident; multiple sclerosis onset occurs anywhere between
the ages of 15 and 60; many people are partially sighted or hard of hearing for
the majority of their lives. Aging
disability is a reality for a growing portion of the population; people in the
aging disability community face unique healthcare needs and challenge
conventional notions of “healthy aging” at every turn.

Limitations acquired through aging
–fatigue, chronic pain, reduced mobility- are things that people with
disabilities have been living with for the majority of their lives. Adapting to
how these realities change with age allows those with pre-existing disabilities
to restructure their expectations accordingly.
found that adults with disabilities
considered themselves to be aging “successfully” when they were able to find
contentedness in life and adapt to changes in their health. Because those with
disabilities have lived with some degree of impairment for a longer period of time,
they may have an easier time adjusting to changes in their health than other

Older adults with disabilities are
not unlike other seniors, in that autonomy is of the utmost importance.
However, autonomy isn’t always defined in terms of independence; for those with
disabilities, autonomy could refer to how they interact with others (directing
their own care, for example), how they wish to participate in activities and
the selection of their own adaptive equipment.

Participation in activities presents
a unique challenge for older people with disabilities. Physical access is a huge
barrier for them, just as it is people with disabilities at

of community participation of older adults with disabilities, many individuals
spoke of being left out because the location of the activity was inaccessible,
or otherwise could not accommodate for their different physical needs; raising
these concerns and being met with resistance is often embarrassing and exacerbate
systemic exclusion and isolation.

Another challenge facing the elderly
disability community is access to comprehensive healthcare. Many participants
in the American study spoke of having doctors who may be well versed in issues
associated with aging, or challenges associated with their disability –but
crucially, not in how these aspects of their health intersect and interact.

As disabled people age, they will continue to face challenges; some are
not so different from the issues of the larger seniors’ community. Some
challenges may seem similar, but include unique elements that necessitate a
nuanced approach, like addressing barriers to access that lead to isolation,
and tackling issues of inclusive healthcare for seniors with unique needs. The
aging disability community is also strong and defiant in its resilience,
challenging the accepted societal definitions of aging well by proving that
disabilities don’t preclude people from continuing to live healthy, engaging
lives at any age.

E. et al. (2014) “Community Participation of Older Adults with Disabilities” in