When a society only focuses on the physical effects of aging, it casts a wide shadow over other important aspects of growing older.

Matthew Fullen is determined to shine a spotlight.

The assistant professor of counselor education in the Virginia Tech School of Education earned a $100,000 grant from the Mather Institute to develop a wellness coaching program for older adults.

Fullen serves as co-principal investigator in the project along with Philip Clarke, an associate professor at Wake Forest University.

The Mather Institute, a national leader in senior housing, takes an innovative approach to promoting holistic wellness. The researchers sought the grant to help older people prioritize specific areas of wellness most relevant to them as individuals.

“We want to change the conversation about aging from one of decline to one of opportunity,” said Fullen. “Eschewing definitions of wellness that merely emphasize physical health is one way to change that conversation.”

Fullen and Clarke plan to employ an approach to wellness that addresses eight dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, spiritual, vocational, contextual, and developmental. Further, the program will stress self-determination and socioecological theories.

Matthew Fullen
Matthew Fullen is an assistant professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech.

“Wellness coaching represents an opportunity for someone to pause, reflect on their values and needs, and make decisions about what they want in life,” said Fullen. “We believe this is a way to support autonomy and choice at a key juncture in people’s lives.”

Fullen said he and Clarke are designing the program based on their research experience and the Mather Institute’s commitment to a holistic understanding of wellness. In 2019, Fullen and Clarke worked with the Mather Institute to assess interest in wellness coaching among residents and staff. While the communities surveyed commonly offered programs to support physical and social wellness goals, each lacked opportunity to promote emotional wellness.

Fullen credited the work of Jordan Westcott and Connie Tomlin, doctoral students in the Virginia Tech Counselor Education Program, for supporting the project.

The researchers plan to launch a pilot version of the program beginning in the spring of 2021. They will finalize an evaluation of the program by the end of the year. The pilot program will enable staff members in life plan communities to provide wellness coaching.

Fullen focuses his research on improving older adults’ access to mental health care and developing community-based interventions that promote mental health as people age.

“This partnership with the Mather Institute aligns with both of these interests,” said Fullen. “Currently, there is inequitable access to mental health services for older adults, which requires the development of creative approaches like wellness coaching. This program is novel in that it’s embedded within the life plan community, which increases accessibility, reduces stigma, and provides an opportunity to support older adults’ mental health alongside the other areas of wellness they may prioritize.”

Written by Andrew Adkins