There are so many articles out there about “healthy aging” but most of them are bizarrely vague. Like ads for menstrual products or incontinence, they seem to be convinced that we’d all run away screaming if they actually mentioned what aging is actually like, so we’re 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. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with beach dates or light workouts, but it doesn’t really address the issue of aging head-on. It’s like a dream of healthy seniorhood, as imagined by people who still don’t believe they’ll ever actually be old. (Yes, I said old. It’s not a dirty word!) But even if it’s 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, and by 2050 this percentage is expected to surpass 30% in Canada and most of Europe. We aren’t, 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?
Defining healthy aging
Health is a broad term that means different things for different people. But in general, it’s 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.
We’ll take a look at each of these in a little more detail
Meeting your needs
Okay, that’s 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 you’re 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 primary care physician, 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, growing, & making decisions
Learning and growth are a huge part of a happy and healthy life. It can be comfortable to fall into routines, but that shouldn’t 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 traveling, taking up an entirely new hobby, or learning another language. But the greatest fear that many people have about getting older isn’t about failing to learn new things. It’s not even developing poor health. It’s the potential for lost autonomy The longer you’ve been empowered to make your own decisions, the more you cherish it. The idea of losing that is horrifying. This is especially true when we think about the two primary sets of people who might take on our decision-making power down the road: our own children, for whom we made decisions for years, and strangers. As we get older, most of us end up leaning more heavily on others than we would have wished. What’s the solution here? Making as many decisions as possible now. Again, this involves some (possibly uncomfortable) conversations, especially with family members who’d rather pretend aging simply doesn’t 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 can’t
● What kind of medical treatment you want or don’t want
● How comfortable you want to be
● How you want people to treat you
● What you want your loved ones to know
Even if not choosing this particular template, developing an advance directive is a good practice for people of all ages to consider, if they want to preserve their decision-making powers in the event of a catastrophic illness or injury.
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 can’t. Maybe you take t’ai chi instead of Zumba fitness, or you walk laps in the pool instead of around the track. Your physician or physical therapist can help you figure out what maintaining your personal mobility looks like. The second form of mobility is about how you get around in the world. People in their 80s 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.
Building and maintaining relationships
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, you’ll be spending time with people who enjoy and appreciate the same things you do. And what about family? If you’re lucky, they also fall into this category. If you’re not so lucky, these relationships can be fraught with challenges. It’s worth considering individual or family therapy if there are family relationship you’d like to strengthen. And if they’re not the sort of relationships that ought to be maintained, a good therapist can help you through that process as well.
Contributing to society
Know that you have something to offer the world. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve spent most of your life as a NASA scientist or a full-time parent, whether you were a pillar of the community or the town’s 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.
Aging isn’t always easy
It would be nice if our minds and bodies kept functioning as though we were perpetually 25, but that’s 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 op-ed, or schedule a massage. Aging isn’t always easy, but it’s a privilege all the same. So here’s to making the most of the opportunity.