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A New Paradigm for Successful Aging

By Joanne M Hill

New research studies based on records of those people who have lived long and well, including the ever growing population of centenarians, have enabled professionals to identify the factors that impact on successful aging. Besides the blessing of good genetic codes, individuals may set new life goals based on their own choices to improve the quality and longevity of their lives. These so called lifestyle choices are holistic in nature because they encompass the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual attributes of one’s life. The overall well-being of aging adults, to a large extent, rests in their ability to learn how to age well and put this knowledge into regular use. Since this topic is an entire field of study (gerontology), this article will only discuss some of the major findings so that older adults may apply this knowledge to their own lives. The latest information about aging well is readily available at libraries and book stores, on the Internet, in the media, aging and health organizations and government agencies. In fact, many free worthwhile publications are distributed by the federal government. The National Institutes on Aging and Health will send a catalog of their publications to you: call 800-222-2225 or visit www. nih.gov/nia for information.

In Aging Well, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, author George E. Valliant, a professor at Harvard Medical School, identified four basic activities that create a rewarding and happy retirement: (1) Workmates should be replaced by a new social network, which might also include grandchildren. (2) Learn how to play, even competitively, to make new friends and maintain self-esteem. (3) Be creative by pursuing activities that incorporate talent and communication, such as art work, music, writing or gardening. (4) Engage in lifelong learning to foster psychological health. Valliant points out that in ancient Greece, the word scholar meant leisure, suggesting that free time is best spent in learning new things. In summary, create joyful reasons to get out of bed everyday!

The creation of healthy habits is important for the physical and mental well-being of every adult. Eating nutritionally, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol abuse, exercising daily, and living adaptively all foster good health at any age. Even older adults can improve the status of their health by beginning new regimens with the guidance of their physician. By maintaining appropriate body weight and participating in exercises that strengthen muscles, improve balance, gait and endurance, even elders in their 70’s and 80’s can improve the quality of their lives. The website www.MyPyramid.gov, sponsored by USDA, provides information about healthy food choices and calorie intake based on a person’s age, weight and activity level. Anyone with medical problems, should consult their physician before starting any new eating regimen.

Everyday activities such as walking a dog, housecleaning, gardening, and stretching will help an elder maintain mobility. For professional guidance, many physical fitness centers and senior programs offer Silver Sneakers, Yoga, and Tai Chi classes that are designed for older adults. Of course, brisk walking is free, and other enjoyable exercises such as biking, hiking or playing outdoor games with grandchildren help to motivate frequent participation. The benefits of exercise include: extension of life, reducing stress, maintaining mobility, reducing risk of diabetes and heart disease, and improving sleep, memory, and moods! Sometimes, in our appearance oriented culture, the true value and purpose of staying physically fit is forgotten.

Living adaptively is a way of life for most centenarians. Having a positive attitude, knowing how to accept things that cannot be changed, and maintaining a sense of humor all contribute to longevity. Keeping an open mind, growing with cultural changes, and learning from younger generations keep the mind agile and a person dynamic, rather than stagnant. Having friends and family to care about and interact with fosters mental health and a person’s sense of connectedness to the world. Older people living alone should make special efforts to become involved with the larger community in some way, especially if family does not visit often. Chronic loneliness leads to depression, poor eating, poor sleeping, stress, and eventually poor medical health. By sharing conversations, ideas, concerns, activities and goals, we keep our human qualities in tact and have purpose in life. Elders who are homebound should consider a companion or caregiver as a personal resource to accomplish social contact on a regular basis. Developing a spiritual life at church, at home, or in the community may also provide some older adults with the strength to face challenges in their lives and lead happier lives. Many churches have volunteers to visit the homebound.

Aging well means that growing old is not a time of life to be feared, unrewarded or resented. Slowly new positive words, definitions and ideas about growing old successfully are evolving with the baby boomers, so that being old will no longer be denied by older adults. Growing old will become a welcomed time of life to honor ourselves with all the blessings life has to offer. In 1874, Henri Amiel wrote, “To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” Now 21st century knowledge is paving the way to our success!

Joanne Hill, MSW, is the author of Elder Organizer: A Journal of Information for Family Elders. The book was designed for baby boomers and their aging parents to prepare for the future before a crisis strikes. More information about the book can be found at http://www.lifeworkspublishing.com Ms Hill has presented seminars to elders and their adult children on the subject of Strategies for Aging Adults, The Secrets to Longevity, and Teaming Up With Your Doctor to promote the well being of elders. To contact Ms. Hill email jhill@lifeworkspublishing.com.

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