By Ellen Spitaleri

Even though AARP Oregon’s 9th Vital Aging Conference took place in November, people still have the opportunity to access speaker presentations from the conference on the AARP Oregon website, bit.ly/vitalaging2020.

This year’s conference, Vital Aging 2020: Live. Learn. Connect, was unique in two ways. For the first time, it was a virtual conference held on Zoom and many speakers addressed COVID-19’s impact on seniors.

The conference opened with the panel, Design Your Life: Re-Imagine Our Future, moderated by Ruby Haughton-Pitts, AARP Oregon state director.

“Although 2020 has been a very tough year, AARP has continued to focus on the safety and well-being of older adults and their families – helping them to live healthier and more productive lives,” Haughton-Pitts said.

“Vital aging is all about using everything available to create your best possible life,” she added. AARP’s vision and mission is to help people choose how they live as they age.

The organization strives “to make Oregon an age-friendly state where people of all ages, races and abilities can live, work and play,” she said.

Deborah Jordan, director, AARP Innovation Labs in Washington, D.C., was the first speaker on the panel Design Thinking in Action: Design Your Life.

“We all have cognitive biases, the first step of overcoming them is being aware of them,” Jordan said. “We have to be intentional to overcome these biases; it takes work.”

She briefly touched on COVID-19 by sharing an example about the creative way a young child was able to hug her grandparents in the midst of the pandemic.

Dr. Alison Bryant, senior vice president of AARP research, presented Planning for Life Transitions.

“Although many of life’s key transition moments come out of the blue, such as divorce and widowhood or finding a new career, we can always do things to prepare ourselves for them,” Bryant said.

“Doing little things now and along the way will make sure that we come out of those transitions happier, healthier and more financially stable,” she added.

During this time of pandemic and social isolation, people can focus on building their personal and professional networks.

“Setting a goal of reaching out to one person you haven’t spoken to in a while every week can make a big difference,” she said, adding that it helps if people already familiar with technology can use it to help with social isolation.

“If you are trying to get tech into their hands, and train them on it, and then also creating new behaviors and norms around connecting socially, it can be overwhelming,” Bryant added.

Tim Carpenter was next, He’s the founder of EngAGE (EngAGEdAging.org), an organization dedicated to creating community and changing lives by transforming affordable senior and multigenerational housing projects into vibrant centers of learning, wellness, and creativity.

In A Dose of Creativity, Carpenter said it is important to design communities for all ages,  “where purpose, meaning and community connection replace loneliness; relationships across generations replace ageism; where diversity and inclusion replace division, and empathy replaces apathy.”

The conference concluded with gerontologist and educator,  Jeanette Leardi’s Surviving and Thriving During the Holidays. She took advantage of the virtual platform, asking people to type in the benefits and downsides of traditional holidays into the chat area and incorporated their suggestions into her presentation.

These included positives like gathering with families and friends and taking a welcome break from the daily grind, and negatives like missing people who have passed away, confronting unresolved family issues and dealing with holiday financial stress.

During her presentation, Leardi took on what she called the elephant in the room: COVID-19. “Older adults are in a higher risk group and it can be stressful dealing with social isolation, social distancing, having to communicate through technology, anxiety and ever-changing guidelines,” she noted.

“Even in normal years, the winter holidays often add pressure and all kinds of other stress to our lives as we prepare for them,” Leardi said, adding, “This pandemic has additionally challenged us to find creative ways to remain connected and positive about celebrating what should be happy times.”

She offered three specific steps to take in planning for family winter holiday gatherings this year: anticipate, celebrate and reflect.

First, start planning early for any kind of celebration and set realistic expectations and goals.  “There is no such thing as a perfect holiday,” Leardi said.

As for COVID-19, plan to deal with tense situations by being aware of statewide restrictions in numbers of people allowed to come together and mask-wearing requirements for participants.

Then celebrate the holiday, while keeping your sense of humor and acknowledging the things you are grateful for.

“By necessity, many of us will reduce or simplify our gatherings, and in a way, these adjustments can be a good thing if they cause us to be less distracted by the trappings of a holiday and instead make us think more about its meaning and why we want to celebrate it, either alone or with others,” Leardi said.

Having a group toast, lighting a candle or singing together can make a virtual celebration special. Finally, reflect on what went well or not so well.

“Be prepared for post-holiday letdown, be grateful for the experience and do something special for yourself,” she said. (jeanetteleardi.com).

AARP Oregon is at states.aarp.org/oregon.