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Shifting the way we look at aging

Aging is often seen as a declining process, a downhill trajectory after hitting a peak in our 20s or 30s.

But that's not how Professor of Physical Therapy Education Charity Johansson sees it. For her, aging is an opportunity to develop and transform body, mind and soul.

“I think we miss a great opportunity if we don’t look at (aging) in that larger context of who that person is and the quality of life that person wants,” she says, “and looking at how all that works together. Separating them is somewhat artificial.”

Case in point: Mobility in Context: Principles of Patient Care Skills, a book she cowrote with Elon's Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Education Susan Chinworth. In it, Johansson discusses patient care principles – teaching someone to use crutches, get out of bed – in the context of the patients and their needs, desired outcomes and the environment they are in.

She says she decided to write the book after looking for a textbook for her patient care principles class, which she teaches annually to aspiring physical therapists in Elon’s School of Health Sciences. All the textbooks she found claimed there was only one right way to do things, something that Johansson knew from her own clinical experience not to be true.

“I’m not just treating somebody who fell and broke a hip; I’m not just treating a hip. I’m treating a person who has a life and goals and fears and hopes,” she says. “You have to take people’s personal goals and their abilities into account, and you have to make decisions and you need to bring the evidence to bear on your decision-making.”

Throughout her clinical and teaching career, Johansson has always treated her students and patients as individuals first and foremost. Shaking a person's hand and looking at them in the eye while you talk to them may seem unimportant but can have a big impact, as is apparent by the feedback Johansson receives from patients, former students and colleagues.

In the end, she says, it all comes down to helping people make positive and meaningful changes in their lives and contributing to the overall good, a lesson she often imparts through her scholarship.

“You don’t assume that just because you know a lot about PT you know more about that person’s experience having had a stroke. They know more about that experience than you do and seeing that person as an equal partner in that education process is important,” she says. “That’s something I try to address in the Mobility in Context book – that therapy is not something you do to somebody; it’s a partnership and you are working with them and that’s what’s empowering to them.”

A board certified specialist in geriatrics, Johansson joined Elon’s faculty in 1999. She holds a master’s degree in physical therapy from Stanford University School of Medicine and a doctoral degree in adult and higher education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has published dozens of articles and is currently working with an Elon colleague, Peter Felten, on a book about undergraduate transformative experiences.

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