To paraphrase a popular 1960s song: “The times, they are a’ changin.” And so is grandma. As opposed to the grandmother of forty years ago, today’s grandmother is likely to work in corporate America, bench press 75 pounds and travel to Europe, South America, or even Nepal.
A glance at the American Associated of Retired Persons (AARP) Web site (www.aarp.org), for example, demonstrates that today’s seniors are eschewing retirement and continuing to stay engaged and active participants in society. The site offers information and resources on topics including “money and work,” “the volunteer experience,” and “computers and technology.”
Ironically, while examples of seniors enjoying productive lives abound, most Americans continue to view aging as a totally negative process. Out of ignorance or perhaps fear, Americans view aging as a process of decline and steady erosion of the joys of living.
The good news for seniors, as well as those who will one day become seniors, is that a good deal of the negative associations with aging are, in fact, wrong or exaggerated. The real story, as noted in the groundbreaking study on Successful Aging sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is that only 30 percent of how we age can be attributed to genes; the remaining 70 percent is determined by our lifestyle choices. Yes, we can choose to be healthier seniors, and it’s never too late.
I’d like to address some frequently held misconceptions on aging that I too often hear in my work with seniors, and then provide the facts as we now know them…the rest of the story.
1. Misconception: Aging means Alzheimer’s.
Fact: Of people over 65, only 10 percent have Alzheimer’s disease. Most forms of decreased mental function and dementia are caused by disuse, i.e. letting the mind get lazy. Seniors can help prevent the loss of mental function and some forms of dementia by stimulating the brain with simple exercises that challenge the memory, such as doing crossword puzzles, playing word games, conversing with friends and family, learning new skills or traveling.
2. Misconception: Aging means physical inactivity.
Fact: Seniors are not only capable of exercise, but require it to maintain independence, good mental function, and to reduce risk of disease. Aerobics (walking, swimming, etc.) is fundamental, yet strength training produces dramatic results, allowing seniors who previously required assistance with daily living to become independent again. Stretching and balance exercises, like yoga or tai chai, can help arthritis and prevent falls. With non-rigorous but consistent exercises, seniors can achieve high levels of functioning. Just look at congressman and astronaut John Glenn or 82-year-old Payton Thomas, senior world record holder for the 100-yard dash.
3. Misconception: Aging means fewer or no contributions to society.
Fact: Current retirees are more interested in an active life, including continuing to work, than their parents’ generation, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in March 1999.
- 15 million older persons volunteer, nearly half the 65-plus population in the U.S.
- About 3.7 million older Americans (12 percent of the population) were in the labor force in 1998, constituting approximately 2.8 percent of the U.S. labor force.
4. Misconception: Aging means the end of learning.
Fact: Learning is, in fact, a lifelong process. Seniors with no training have embraced computer technology and are the most rapidly growing computer-literate demographic group. Likewise, seniors have mastered other technologies that were unknown in their youth. More and more, colleges and universities are realizing the huge demand for continuing education in this population.
5. Misconception: Aging means loneliness and depression.
Fact: Unfortunately, this was indeed the fate of many previous generations of older Americans, mostly because society had no role for them. Today’s seniors increasingly are finding alternatives to being alone, such as house-sharing or moving to senior living communities, where they can maintain social connections, continue to learn, and contribute to the larger community through employment or volunteerism.
Recent research has smashed the stereotypes of aging. Growing older can be rewarding and fun. Seniors who take charge of their health, stay engaged in life, and use, rather than lose, their physical and mental capabilities, can enjoy later years filled with vitality and joy. As former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham once put it, “No one can avoid aging, but aging productively is something else.”
By Dr. Roger F. Landry
Courtesy of ARA Content