How can we age well?
There are so many articles out there about ďhealthy ageingĒ, but most of them are bizarrely vague. Like ads for menstrual products or incontinence, they seem to be convinced that weíd all run away screaming if they actually mentioned what aging is actually like, so weíre left with commercials of silver-haired couples taking romantic strolls on the beach, senior women lifting two-pound weights in yoga pants, and similarly-aged men mowing the lawn and looking purposefully at the horizon. Itís not that thereís anything wrong with beach dates or light workouts, but it doesnít really address the issue of aging head-on. Itís like a dream of healthy seniorhood, as imagined by people who still donít believe theyíll ever actually be old.
(Yes, I said old. Itís not a dirty word!)
But even if itís usually polished up beyond recognition, healthy aging is a major concern. Across the world, the percentage of the population over the age of sixty is increasing. We arenít, as the saying goes, getting any younger. So what does it mean to age well? And what do we need to do in order to get there?
Health is a broad term that means different things for different people. But in general, itís looking at functional ability, regardless of the particular quirks that your own body or mind develops as you age. The World Health Organization defines functional ability in the following terms:
● The ability to meet your basic needs
● The ability to learn, grow and make decisions
● The ability to be mobile
● The ability to build and maintain relationships
● The ability to contribute to society.
Weíll take a look at each of these in a little more detail.
Okay, thatís a HUGE category. It means healthy finances, a safe place to live, warm clothes, clean water, nutritious food. It means access to whatever medications or treatments (including massage) that keep you functioning. If youíre having problems with some aspect of meeting your basic, needs, it means you have supports in place to help with that, whether these are physical supports like a grab bar in the bathroom, mental supports like reminders to take care of important tasks, or social supports like a neighbor who checks in on you regularly.
For those of us who are wondering how to age well, it means making plans for how these needs will be met in the future. Talking with your GP, your financial planner, your family, and even your friends can help you build a solid plan for ensuring your needs continue to be met over the coming years.
Learning and growth are a huge part of a happy and healthy life. It can be comfortable to fall into routines, but that shouldnít stop you from branching out as well. Reading a book, taking a dance class, or exploring a new museum or park are all simple examples. More challenging can be travelling, taking up an entirely new hobby, or learning another language.
But the greatest fear that many people have about getting older isnít about failing to learn new things. Itís not even developing poor health. Itís the potential for lost autonomy The longer youíve been empowered to make your own decisions, the more you cherish it. The idea of losing that is horrifying.
As we get older, most of us end up leaning more heavily on others than we would have wished. Whatís the solution here? Making as many decisions as possible now. Again, this involves some (possibly uncomfortable) conversations, especially with family members whoíd rather pretend aging simply doesnít happen. An advance directive is also a key part of this process. Five Wishes is one of the easiest and most common versions of this form, and makes your choices known in five key areas:
● Who you want to make decisions for you when you canít
● What kind of medical treatment you want or donít want
● How comfortable you want to be
● How you want people to treat you
● What you want your loved ones to know.
Mobility comes in two flavors. The first is the ability to get around by the power of your own body. The very best thing you can do to maintain your mobility is to use your mobility. That means taking advantage of opportunities to walk, exercise, and stretch. Strength training can help, as well as getting regular massage. (Hello!) For folks whose mobility is limited in one or more ways, this can require taking advantage of what your body can do, even while there are things it canít. Maybe you take tíai chi instead of Zumba fitness, or you walk laps in the pool instead of around the track.
The second form of mobility is about how you get around in the worlld People in their 80ís often give up driving for a number of reasons, most commonly due to vision problems. Having access to alternative sources of transportation can be huge in assuring quality of life as we age. Living within walking distance of important resources such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and social spaces can as well.
Some people naturally seem to collect new friends wherever they go. The introverts among us struggle a little more. Either way, building and maintaining relationships with others is a key part of health at every stage of life. Volunteering is a fantastic way to get to know people in a structured environment. Groups based around walking, reading, gardening, games, or other hobbies are another great option. Whatever you choose, youíll be spending time with people who enjoy and appreciate the same things you do.
And what about family? If youíre lucky, they also fall into this category. If youíre not so lucky, these relationships can be fraught with challenges. Itís worth considering individual or family therapy if there are family relationship youíd like to strengthen. And if theyíre not the sort of relationships that ought to be maintained, a good therapist can help you through that process as well.
Know that you have something to offer the world. It doesnít matter whether youíve spent most of your life as a NASA scientist or a full-time parent, whether you were a pillar of the community or the townís biggest screw-up. If you believe that the world could be better with a little help, you are never too old to offer it. Volunteer. Share your experiences. Model your values. Make the world more just, friendly, beautiful, or honest. A huge part of health is hope. So act on it, however you can.
It would be nice if our minds and bodies kept functioning as though we were perpetually 25, but thatís not the reality we live in. What is our reality is that we have choices available to us that can help us lead meaningful and fulfilling lives at every age, even as we face new challenges. So today? Think a little bit about the future. Plan to take that walk, call your sister, write that book , or schedule that massage
. Ageing isnít always easy, but itís a privilege all the same. So hereís to making the most of the opportunity.