I don’t know about you, but I hope to have a long fulfilled life. When I retire, I want to travel, try restaurants in towns I’m currently “too busy” to go to, start a hobby I’ve been putting off, and spend more time with my children (and hopefully grandchildren). Unfortunately, none of us know what our futures hold. A sudden stroke or car accident and I could be home-bound. Or, I might have the genetics and luck of my mother and be an active 84 year old who still works part-time.
Since we can’t do anything about luck, and can’t all be genetically gifted, perhaps it’s time to be more vigilant. The numbers don’t lie. By 2020, the number of people in the United States over 60 will be 75.8 million — that’s 34-percent more than today. Ten years later, that number grows to 92 million. And according to U.S. government statistics, nearly 9 million of those seniors will live to be 85 and older. Without helping our aging population—in some cases that means ourselves—grow healthier, the burden on caregivers, private and public agencies, the healthcare system, and seniors themselves could be enormous.
How to fight the odds? Senior care experts know that engagement—mental, physical and social—helps build stronger, happier and more self-sufficient older adults. Applying that philosophy to seniors in your family or social circle today can keep loved ones functioning at their highest level possible. And, it wouldn’t hurt to start working on your own engagement levels. Wherever your golden years take you, here are five tips to put you down the path toward a better, more dynamic future:
1. Exercise your brain, daily.
Stimulating the brain with different types of activities keeps neural pathways well-travelled, dementia-resistant and open to learning. Do puzzles and play games, read daily, keep a journal and record your memories. Go ahead and tap into old hobbies like playing a musical instrument, painting or sewing, scrapbooking, photography or singing.
2. Eat for life.
Yes, we all know the basics: Eat sensibly, drink moderately and avoid burdening your body with excess weight. It’s important to watch your diet—and avoid too much animal fats, saturated fats, sugars, packaged foods and refined carbohydrates—living an active life, as much as possible, helps people stay stronger as they age.
3. Get moving.
Exercise may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it can prevent the frustration and pain of immobility. Flexibility and balance are essential to healthy aging because both help prevent falls and broken bones. Tai Chi and yoga, both low-impact exercise regimens, build flexibility and balance, as well as strength. Weight bearing exercise fights osteoporosis, and simple walking or jogging keeps hearts and lungs in good working order and oxygen flowing to the brain. I even gave my mom a stationary bike for her 84th birthday!
4. Get a good night’s sleep.
Short term memories establish themselves while the brain is asleep. A full seven or eight hours of sleep each night can support that process, plus help the body feel physically restored. Lack of sleep exacerbates daytime problems like inability to focus, difficulty making decisions, mood disorders and lack of coordination. So many of my friends, expecting that the empty nest would come with longs nights of uninterrupted slumber, are increasingly frustrated by difficulty sleeping. As people age, they may find it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep for a variety of reasons, including hormonal changes and certain medications. Being aware of good sleep hygiene is important. If that doesn’t work, consult a specialist about long-term sleep problems.
5. Maintain connections.
Join a local social club, do volunteer work, organize a luncheon group, take a class or teach a class. And try casting a wide net. Late-life is often marked by loss, moves and changing of circumstances. Prepare for this with goals, groups and relationships you can try keep throughout. One of my mother’s friends is in her early sixties and another just celebrated her ninetieth birthday. Having friends, both younger and older can add interest and variety to your world.
Unfortunately, we all know these things, or that we should be doing these things. But we think we have time. I say, start now. Start a few small things this year, and more next year. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.”