Getting older is inevitable, but we all want to age as well as possible. For most people that means maintaining some independence and the ability to do the things that bring us joy. However sometimes getting older is different than we thought it would be. So how can we ensure we get to do all the things we dreamed of after retirement?
“Aging is a physiological process. I see 80-year-olds who look 60, and 60-year-olds who look 80,” said Skotti Church, MD, a geriatric physician who specializes in care for people in their 70s and older. “Regardless of what year you were born, there are things you can do that will help you live a life that is enjoyable and fulfilling.”
Dr. Church outlined six things you can do in your senior years to ensure they stay golden:
1. Commit to Staying Active
According to Dr. Church, maintaining your strength and mobility are the most important aspects to aging well.
“Staying active is helpful for managing chronic conditions and your weight, but it is also the single thing that makes the biggest difference in mobility, even for my patients with heart disease or diabetes,” said Dr. Church. “Good mobility is the biggest factor in how long people can maintain their independence.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a fitness buff who jogs or mountain bikes. Dr. Church reported her healthiest patients are those who are regular walkers, rain or shine.
If you don’t live in a neighborhood where walking is safe or convenient for you, look into a nearby gym, track or indoor mall that has special hours for walking. These places have even surfaces which can be helpful if you need to walk with a cane or walker.
2. Maintain a Social Life
The past year has really highlighted how important social interactions are to overall health and well-being. Having regular get-togethers with friends for golf or book club, brunch with family or attending church may seem small but these activities create a network of social support that is important for healthy aging.
“Research consistently shows that people who have strong social supports have less disease, better mental health and live longer,” said Dr. Church.
Friends, family and organizational groups all contribute to helping you feel like a valued member of the community.
If you’re having a hard time finding social outlets Dr. Church recommended thinking about activities that bring you joy and interest you. Then, find a way to engage in those activities with others. There is likely a class or group interested in the same things you are that is already meeting and would love to include you. Many groups have adapted to meeting online or with physical distancing so don’t let the pandemic be an excuse that keeps you from searching out these opportunities.
Staying involved can become more difficult if you don’t drive anymore or have mobility issues, but Dr. Church encouraged seniors to accept help from others for rides or connect to local transportation options.
3. Get Help for Hearing Problems
Hearing problems often come on slowly. It might start with needing your TV or car radio to be a little louder than it used to be. Or you might have difficulty hearing a conversation when you’re in a group. Struggling with hearing loss can be frustrating, isolating and embarrassing, especially if you have to ask loved ones to repeat themselves or look at you when they are talking.
Instead of trying to cope, get help. Dr. Church reported that untreated hearing loss is tied to balance problems, dementia and depression. Hearing loss can also negatively impact your social life since it can be harder to engage with others.
A hearing evaluation with an audiologist can help determine what type of hearing loss you have and the best way to improve your hearing. This exam is more in-depth than the hearing screening you may have at your primary care provider, so ask for a referral if you are having difficulty hearing.
4. Expect Sleep Changes
Changing sleep patterns are a part of the aging process. Dr. Church reported that after age 60, people often experience lighter sleep and may waken more easily and frequently during the night.
However, she cautions people against trying to solve sleep problems on their own.
“Sometimes people try over-the-counter medications like Benadryl or prescription sleep aids or drink a glass of wine before bed to help them sleep. The medications can cause complications, and if you start drinking to help you sleep there is a risk it can turn into a bad habit,” said Dr. Church. “These options are not helpful in the long term and can be really detrimental to your health in your later years.”
Changes in sleep are often due to side effects from chronic conditions like arthritis or prostate problems, or certain medications like beta-blockers or antidepressants. Undiagnosed conditions like sleep apnea could also be impacting your sleep. Talk to you doctor about your sleep problems to help pinpoint the cause. If you are on medication, ask if there are alternate options you can take to improve your sleep.
5. Be Honest About Your Memory
A little cognitive slowdown is normal as you age. Dr. Church reported that “working memory” becomes less efficient in your senior years. If you were formerly a champion multi-tasker who could cook dinner and start a load of laundry while talking on the phone, these days you may find yourself walking into a room and forgetting why you’re there. This is normal and slowing down a little so you can focus on one task at a time can help. However, forgetting important dates or details that impact your life, health or family is not normal.
“People often shrug off a significant memory lapse or won’t address it because they’re apprehensive about what it means, and it can be a hard topic for loved ones to initiate. I encourage people to think of cognitive decline as a medical condition like heart disease or cancer and not a personal offense to the individual in question,” said Dr. Church.
If you feel like your memory is starting to slip a little, talk with your doctor. There are a variety of cognitive evaluation tools that can help determine how your memory, processing and problem-solving skills are functioning. These tests are only given with your consent. It might feel scary to be tested if you are worried about the outcome, but the information gathered can help give you tools and options to ensure your health and safety moving forward.
6. Make a Plan Based on Reality
Every phase of life has good parts and hard parts, and your senior years are no exception.
“It is common for individuals to feel anger, frustration and especially denial about the changes and losses that occur with aging,” said Dr. Church. “It is understandable but staying in an absolute state of denial is unproductive and only leads to decisions being made in urgent situations where you have fewer choices.”
She encourages older adults to be honest with their loved ones about the difficulties they are experiencing, but don’t get stuck there. Work with your support people to develop a “plan B” that takes into account the realities of what your life would look like if your mobility is reduced or you need extra care. Planning out your future, even if it’s less than ideal, can help ensure you have input, and reduce the stress and anxiety you feel about aging.
“Sometimes people are surprised at the way their minds and bodies change as they age, but that doesn’t mean they can’t age well or have fulfilling lives,” said Dr. Church. “Stay flexible so you can make adjustments as you need to and focus on really appreciating all the wonderful things about these years.”