Training for Elderhood - Part 1
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
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Our culture is not necessarily known to embrace older adulthood with all its potential in terms of growth, health, and meaning. I have witnessed some shining examples of older adults living their best lives with good health and longevity. By capturing and sharing this, my objective is to offer hope and optimism for what is possible later in life. People of all ages can benefit from the knowledge of strategies to optimize their quality of life along the journey.
I reached out to a group of elders in my community to inform this post. They were asked 3 questions, to follow. The response was inspiring and overwhelming. There was so much richness, thought, and depth to the responses that I divided this topic into 2 separate posts to bring forth all the wisdom that this community generously bestowed. It is a privilege and an awesome responsibility to channel these wise and experienced voices, carrying forth a message I think we all need to hear and learn from.
1) How would you describe your philosophy & mindset on active aging?
“‘Active aging’ implies that you participate in the process. Throughout your life, if you’re lucky enough to be alive, you will be ‘aging’. It’s inevitable. It’s part of life. So prepare for it, be grateful for the opportunity, and enjoy it!”
The powerful statement above beautifully summarizes and echoes the other responses. Other respondents expressed the need to engage in activities and practices that keep us relevant, connected, and feeling joyful. While “aging is not for sissies”, meaning that, with advancing age, we may need to be more intentional and work harder for things we previously took for granted, many can enjoy a certain comfort zone as life may hold fewer stressors and demands like raising children and being at the peak of a career. Life can be better.
One nonagenarian fitness instructor and PhD geoscientist notes that “The older you become, the more examples you run into of folks who look and behave far younger than their chronological years.” He goes on to say “You, too, can give this same impression to others as you begin to engage in activities that provide you rewards that keep you going back for more!”
2) What are some of your wellness practices?
The following gems have been divided into categories of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual practices for the sake of clarity and order. However, many of these practices can be placed in arbitrary and overlapping categories, depending on the individual.
Please note that, in this context, the word “spiritual” does not necessarily equate to religious; rather, religion is one possible avenue of expressing one’s spirituality. If the word “spiritual” does not resonate with you, just think in terms of that which lifts the spirit and/or connects you to something greater.
“Treat your body as a temple.”
The above-quoted respondent, a retired osteopathic physician, suggests avoiding excesses and toxins whenever possible. A well-balanced diet that includes lots of colorful produce and fewer processed foods was mentioned by most of the respondents; however, we can also enjoy the occasional indulgence without labeling a certain food as “bad”. Drinking plenty of water was also mentioned, and this makes perfect sense when we think of all the functions of water in the body; in fact, our bodies are made up of around 60% water.
Incorporating physical activity however we can do so was also high on the list. This can be folded into your day by simple actions like parking your car further away and tracked by a device, e.g., a Fitbit. Daily walking is a staple practice of one person who takes any mild aches & pains in stride, reminding herself that “motion is lotion”. Other types of physical activities enjoyed by participants include hiking, bicycling, kayaking, using a rebounder, jogging, swimming, horseback riding, and regular strength-training & stretching to improve mobility and prevent injuries. Varying your routine by cross-training keeps you from getting in a rut.
Paying attention to sufficient quality sleep, rest, and relaxation was noted. Although sleep quality can diminish as we grow older for various reasons, it can be improved and is one of the pillars of good health.
Working outside in the yard or garden is a regular practice for one 70-something man who makes it a point to get on his hands & knees and get his hands dirty. Yes, there is science behind this, too!
Getting bodywork such as massage and using an infrared sauna are other practices that emerged. Generally engaging in enjoyable activities, be they traveling, camping, or karaoke, were mentioned as well.
A commitment to being a lifelong learner was deemed as critical by respondents. Keep your mind sharp by reading, taking educational classes, or webinars. Cultivate curiosity. In the words of one 90-something, “Without being curious about the world around you and its happenings, you gradually withdraw from being a participant in your local mental and physical environments.” Try new things and don’t be afraid to “fail”; let a grandchild help you learn!
Several respondents felt that nurturing relationships by keeping in touch with important people in our lives of all ages helps to meet their emotional needs. One woman, a retired nurse and health educator, points out that humans are intrinsically social animals. Further, scientific research shows that people who have meaningful relationships live longer, happier lives. Yet another retired nurse shares that learning to say “no” and assert her own needs has been an important practice for her.
Counseling, particularly good grief counseling, has been an important tool for another woman in helping her to transition into a new chapter of life after losing her partner. Indeed, this individual exudes joy, life, and presence, setting a wonderful example for us.
Playing or listening to music offers a rich emotional experience and flow state for several respondents as well.
Animals in our homes, such as our pet dogs or cats, and out in nature can also offer much emotional gratification.
Being involved in something greater than you – whether that is an environmental cause, your faith community, civic duty, or some other type of service-oriented activity, is perhaps one of the more important themes that can be found in these responses. Practices such as prayer, meditation, and mindfulness are important to many. Being connected to the natural world by spending time outdoors, being around the ocean or the mountains, and witnessing the natural beauty of a gorgeous sunset offers a connection to something greater for folks, fostering a sense of awe and wonder. Creativity and artistic expression, including working with wood or glass, weaving, writing, theater performance, and playing/singing music, are also ways that people connected to something greater. Energy work could be placed in this category as well.
3) What, in your opinion, are the most important things to keep in mind as we age in order to live our best life?
“I believe that we start to not see older adults, and we become invisible and not as relevant. We get discounted and humored but not really admired and cherished.”
To counter the effects of the above-noted phenomenon, surround yourself with positive people. "Find people in action mode and align yourself with them", suggests our person who found grief counseling so beneficial. She goes on to recommend setting up your life and your home so that you have the time that nourishes you.
We have a lot more control over our future than we think we do if we live well, staying on top of any health conditions, trying lifestyle changes first whenever possible. Our retired osteopathic physician recommends against defining yourself by what may have been, for instance, a profession, and to never refer to yourself as “old”. He asserts that he and his wife reinvent themselves every day, which is easier when you do not attach to a certain identity.
One Senior Center Fitness Room volunteer encourages us to "Accept and work within any limitations without allowing limitations to control your mindset." Let go of things you cannot change, and keep a healthy sense of humor.
A few suggested that age is only a number. A subset of these respondents expressed surprise that they had been contacted for their thoughts on active aging. One youthful 60-something social worker remarks that we live from the inside out; what we feel is our age, will be. Our nonagenarian fitness instructor from above offers this advice: “Maintain curiosity by being engaged in conversations with people who are ‘alive’ – that is, people who are interested in the world around them and have made the decision to take charge of their lives.” And finally, in the words of our Senior Center Fitness Room volunteer, “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up”.
I owe a special thanks to my class participants at the Center for your thoughtful contributions to this post.