Vital years

Elderly female hands folded on lap.

An innovative approach to healthy aging is being pioneered by Helen Kivnick, Minnesota’s Gerontologist of the Year.

“Precisely at a time when older people become more fragile, with less endurance, less physical strength, and with differently functioning memories and cognitive capacities, the environment narrows what they’re allowed to do in a way that doesn’t play to what they can still do or to what they want to be doing,” Kivnick says.

Vital Involvement Practice helps restore the balance. This practice is the focus of Kivnick and her research colleagues in the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work.

“Vital involvement” is defined as a person’s meaningful engagement with the world—taking part in things that bring deep joy and have a positive effect on one’s environment.

Kivnick made the practice her research focus 40 years ago while exploring her dissertation topic about what it means to be a grandparent. She talked with people about the deeply enriching and joyful experiences they were having with their grandchildren.

She says she decided to immerse herself in “this process of promoting health and strength and well-being, and in trying to design programs that do that in large numbers of people.” Because of her decision, many people have been able to experience growth, satisfaction, and deep joy in their lives and contribute more to their communities as they age.

This spring, the Minnesota Gerontological Society recognized Kivnick’s efforts by naming her Minnesota Gerontologist of the Year.

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University of Minnesota, Twin Cities