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Monday, January 9, 2023

Are You Aging Well?

What does healthy aging mean to you? We look at some different definitions from a variety of sources that may stimulate you to change your thinking. 

The idea of healthy aging starts long before you’re old. After all, you are aging as you go from your teens to your twenties, from your twenties to your thirties, and onward for as long as you live. We can start with a broad definition:

“The concept of aging well, which is based on a nonmedical approach to promoting health and well-being, is fundamental to increasing length and quality of life,” writes Dr. Barbara A. Hawkins of the Indiana University Center on Aging and Aged in her article ‘Aging Well: Toward a way of Life for All People.’ 

She goes on to say that “aging well promotes personal behaviors and life-course environments that limit functional declines, especially those caused by chronic conditions, to help older adults maintain their independence and health. Aging well emphasizes the idea that people can maintain satisfying and healthy lives as they age by exercising the choices that optimize healthy, active, and secure lives. Aging well is a dynamic, interactive process that creates long-term, positive change by involving individuals in the physical, social, economic, historical, and cultural contexts of their environments.”

Now let’s look at what all that means to real people, people living out their lives in a variety of places and situations. The Washington Post recently surveyed readers to find their definition of what it meant to age well, and the responses varied widely, from carefree to specific. 

Rita Liesiefsky, 69, Grafton, Wis.: “The only ‘practice’ I have developed is … I’ll be dead soon, so what does it matter? It’s very freeing. I am the old lady I wanted to be!”

Marguerite Lorenz, 58, Temecula, Calif.: “As a professional trustee and executor, I’ve had the privilege of getting well acquainted with hundreds of elders. The successful ones over 80 can still do all the things they want to (physically and mentally), don’t smoke, avoid hard liquor, and not one is overweight. One more thing; embrace your eventual vulnerability; get your estate plan in writing, and keep it up to date.”

Cynthia A. Current, 65, Durham, N.C.: “I don’t ever tell myself I can’t do things because of age. This has to be developed as a lifelong attitude. I know people in their 30s and 40s who already think they’re old!”

Mark Tochen, 77, Camas, Wash.: “Digging in the garden beats digging in my memories, and the walk along a beach or a river walk is appreciated more than ever. We should cultivate our relationships with good friends and loving family — none of them should be taken for granted, and we should find nearby oases.”

A separate study looked at how people defined aging well, and researchers grouped the responses into four categories:

1. Physical/Environment
“You’re able-bodied, you don’t have any health problems and do your own work and (handle) problems you have to deal with in your routine.”

“Physical and financial security and the sense that mentally everything (is) going okay.”

2. Mind/Spirit
A good mental perception of yourself and your environment and people and relationships around you.

Absence of dementia, feeling good mentally, having a good memory, absence of depression or cognitive problems.

3. Lifestyle/Behavioral 
“Feeling well enough to do everything you wanted to do and being happy to get up in the morning,” or, at least, “being able to do some of the things that you used to.” 

Not being afraid of death, an easy death, a nice death, a painless death.

4. Social/Emotional 
Living in harmony, a rich life, a balanced life, a normal life, a happy life, living in peace. 

Doing things for the family (taking care of grandchildren or a partner), helping others, being a member of an organization, having social interactions and relationships with others.

The research summed up healthy aging as maintaining physical function, maintaining cognitive function, and continuing involvement in social activities and productive pursuits. How will you try to meet those three essential goals as you age? Let’s look at some more subscribers’ answers from The Washington Post to expand our thinking. 

Barbara Holleb, 75, Springfield, Va.: “Stay connected to your inner child. It’s about vitality … not age!” 

Erin Bethea, 60, Akron, Ohio: “As I’ve watched my quite elderly father decline I have learned that even when you know you have become a burden to your loved ones and your world has grown quite small you can still make a positive contribution to their lives simply by expressing gratitude for their caregiving, accepting their assistance rather than fighting it, complimenting their efforts, saying something witty or playfully teasing them, and generally maintaining a positive attitude. My father lights up with happiness when he sees that he has made me laugh or smile. He knows he has made my day a little better.” 

Kiesa Kay, 61, Micaville, N.C.: “I often feel invisible as I sit here in this little house surrounded by my ghosts and my memories. I have to force myself to get out and try relentlessly to make new memories again and again. Sometimes I just miss everybody. Aging well means being willing to jump into the river and swim. It means being ready to sleep outside under the stars. It means taking waterfall walks, and it means accepting the things that are irrevocably changing.” 

Jean Potuchek, 74, Poland, Maine: “The biggest barrier to aging well is ageism, all the negative messages that older people are bombarded with every day and often internalize. It is never too soon or too late to fight ageism in our society.”