An avid runner, octogenarian Charlotte Adelsperger recently aced two 5K races, winning first place in her age group. Her 50-something daughter, Karen, nabbed ribbons while competing against her own peers in each of her last 10 races. Neither woman is letting age myths keep them on the sidelines.
Adelsperger, a former elementary teacher, smiles at the lie that seniors have nothing to do. “Many of us have schedules as full as a school day,” she said. “My ‘gym class’ is anything from walking to tennis to treadmill. ‘Math’ is doing my bills. ‘History’ I can learn on TV or the internet or through historical novels. For those who do have health issues, ‘science’ training comes as they learn about their condition and how to manage it. And, of course, you need to continually keep up with technology.” Adelsperger especially enjoys field trips with her friends.
Healthy Aging in Action
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy shares Adelsperger’s enthusiasm for healthy aging. In 2015, America celebrated the 50th anniversaries of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security. “These programs have proven to be shining examples of national efforts that have improved the lives of generations of older adults,” Murthy said. But there are still many more areas where American seniors need support.
In 2016, Murthy and the National Prevention Council, created through the Affordable Care Act and comprised of 20 federal agencies, developed the Healthy Aging in Action (HAIA) report. It identified recommendations and actions to promote healthy aging and improve health and well-being later in life.
- Supports prevention efforts to enable older adults to remain active, independent, and involved in their community.
- Highlights innovative and evidence-based programs from National Prevention Council departments and agencies and local communities that address the challenges related to physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being that are often encountered in later life.
For detailed information on HAIA, see www.surgeongeneral.gov/priorities/prevention/about.
Breaking Down the Myths
Don’t believe the stereotype that all senior citizens eventually land in nursing homes. The truth is only five percent of older Americans live in nursing homes at any given time. The Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org) says just one percent of people ages 65 to 74 live in institutions—and only about 13 percent of people 85 or older. Other myths persist, such as:
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Though it may take a little longer, most older adults are perfectly capable of picking up new skills and being a productive team member.
- Seniors are more prone to having health problems. Lifestyle choices are more likely to make you sick than simply aging. Smoking, poor diet, high stress, obesity, and lack of exercise can all cause cumulative damage that appears later in life.
- Getting old means getting senile. Dementia affects about 10 percent of the senior population. Some medications, stress, fatigue, depression, and other medical conditions can affect memory, but most older adults don’t contract Alzheimer’s disease or suffer severe dementia.
- You become useless as you age. Not so. AARP reports workers 55 and older currently make up 23.1 percent of the U.S. workforce. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, more than 25 percent of older Americans volunteer, reporting lower rates of depression and higher levels of well-being. Many seniors help care for family, friends, and neighbors. Retirement offers the chance to help others in ways that working adults cannot.
The average 65-year-old can reasonably expect to live at least a couple more decades. Here are some ways to add life to those years:
- Keep your friends close and your enemies…off your guest list. Quality of friends matters more than quantity. Develop and nurture relationships with supportive individuals and ditch the complainers and abusers. Even with longevity increasing, life really is too short to waste it on negativity.
- Stay socially active. Have your kids grown up and moved away? Did you lose touch with co-workers after you retired? Here’s a chance to form new, vibrant relationships. Connect with others while sharing your talents and serving people both inside and outside your normal neighborhood.
- Exercise regularly. Like Charlotte and Karen, find physical activities that are both fun and healthy. Go4Life (www.go4life.nia.nih.gov) lists ways to be active all year, plus tips to motivate you to move more.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Your body continues to change as the years go by and what you put into it should evolve, too. Check out National Institute on Aging’s advice on “Choosing Healthy Meals as You Get Older” (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/choosing-healthy-meals- you-get-older ).
- Challenge your brain. Try a new hobby, learn another language, or see what’s going on at the local college—some have free classes online.
- Get lots of sleep. Follow a regular sleep schedule and keep TVs, computers, and cell phones out of the bedroom. Avoid meals, caffeine, and exercise within three hours of bedtime. Set aside time to simply relax before your head hits the pillow.