“Joyous, happy and healthy” is the response I recently received from a friend when I conducted an informal survey on what it means to age gracefully. The images and messages that surround us in the media every day suggest that aging gracefully is impossible. This led me to wonder: Is it really possible to age gracefully or is this idea merely a fantasy of an aging adult?
The three graces
There is no reason why joy, charm and beauty (the qualities of grace depicted in Greek mythology) need to be limited to youth. During the past four years, while working with Living Assistance Services (www.laservices.ca), I have visited many clients who were well into their 80s and were vibrant individuals. Despite chronic illnesses, they were full of life and people I considered to be aging gracefully. So how do they do it? How can we overcome the stereotypes about the aging process and live life gracefully, despite the inevitable decline in physical, social and emotional levels of health that we experience as we age?
The word “grace” dates back to the 12th century and is rooted in the Latin words “gratia”—meaning favour, charm and thanks—and “gratus,” meaning pleasing and grateful. The attributes identified in my survey clearly transcend a biological concept of age. Aging gracefully means a number of things, including tolerance, patience, understanding, humour, acceptance, choice, wisdom, elegance, positivity, engagement, flexibility, curiosity, activity, happiness, health, openness, hope, giving, sharing and joy. None of these words includes a reference to biological age, youthfulness or a single cosmetic enhancement.
Statistics Canada notes that the senior population has doubled since the 1980s and is expected to almost double again in the next 25 years. As members of an aging population, we have a number of opportunities to reject the negative labels associated with being an older adult. Our life experience tells us that we can age gracefully. The next challenge is learning how.
Accept a positive image of aging
The first step in the process of aging gracefully may be the easiest: Refuse to accept the stereotypical thinking about aging that leads us to believe that a decline in physical ability and health is natural. In fact, scientific evidence supports the fact that a physical decline is merely typical and not natural.
A good example is osteoporosis. This largely preventable disease cripples 25 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men in older age. Perhaps you know someone who believes being physically active at an older age may be damaging to their health, and that they need to take it easy as they age. Truth be known, it is the taking it easy lifestyle that will kill us.
We may be fully able or confined to a wheelchair and still age gracefully. The National Council on Aging reports that maintaining a positive attitude and making the most of your situation are parts of successful aging.
Adopt an active lifestyle
Health Canada states that adults who live active lives not only feel better both in the short- and long-term, but also do better over time. There are many social, intellectual and physical activities that we can do to improve our well-being.
A variety of structured social activities take place in local community centres, places of religious worship, volunteer organizations and social clubs. The community centre in my area has programs specifically designed for older adults. These includes activities such as drawing and sketching for beginners, bingo, darts, painting and watercolour for beginners, stamp club, woodcarving for beginners, Scrabble, knitting, movie nights, pancake brunches and BBQs. You can also develop your own social activities by inviting a few friends for an afternoon of sharing stories and photos. I have a men’s coffee group in my community that meets once a week for an hour. While I am not permitted to attend, I have heard that it is sometimes hard to get a seat.
Engaging in intellectual activities is a great way to keep your mind active. For those who like numbers and words, Sudoku and crossword puzzles are great. Book clubs are an opportunity to share your thoughts on what you have been reading. If you have ever had a dream of writing a poem, short story or memoir, how about joining a local writers’ group? If you prefer to keep your mind active from home, there are unlimited activities available online that you can enjoy, such as playing bridge with individuals from all over the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Any form of physical activity matched to your abilities—whether you are starting with chair exercises or finishing your first marathon—is going to make you feel better and help you continue to age gracefully. If you enjoy the social element of fitness activities, local community centres and YMCAs offer a variety of programs. If you prefer to do things more on your own schedule, you can always invite friends or neighbours to join in a daily walking routine.
Tai chi can help increase strength and balance and reduce the risk of falling. In addition, a regular exercise routine has been shown to have multiple benefits for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, including decreased wandering, improved sleep and improved continence.
Evidence today indicates that reaching older adulthood with energy, strength, full function, physical confidence and dignity is biologically possible for more Canadians than ever before. Every opportunity you take to get physically active—whether by parking your car a little further away at the grocery store or completing 10 stand-ups from your chair—will make you feel better physically and emotionally.
Keep it simple
Developing an exercise routine does not have to be complicated. The more that exercise becomes part of your everyday activities, the faster you will notice the benefits. You don’t need a gym or expensive equipment. There are simpler ways to be active, such as dancing at home to your favourite music or adding 10 or 15 minutes of walking to your daily routine.
If you’re unsure about where to begin, your health professional is a great resource. He or she can refer you to an expert to help develop a simple program of exercises specific to your needs and abilities.
Work toward a healthy diet
Many older adults find it challenging to eat a healthy diet. It is often very difficult to consume adequate amounts of nutritious foods, especially if you live alone or lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle. A great deal of sitting around makes it almost impossible to maintain the motivation to eat the protein our bodies require, let alone drink adequate amounts of fluid. Again, being physically active helps maintain a healthy appetite and ensures you are eating a nutritional diet.
If you live alone and find it hard to cook for yourself, you may want to invite some friends over for an afternoon of cooking where everyone helps prepare a number of different dishes. At the end of the day, everyone takes home individual portions of the meals to enjoy on a day when they don’t feel like cooking. If you are adventurous, try themes such as using seasonal local food or creating international dishes from various countries.
Many clients at Living Assistance Services have had great success in improving their daily nutrition with the support of a personal support worker (PSW)—especially those who live alone or do not have a big interest in cooking daily. A PSW can not only assist with grocery shopping, but also with preparing nutritious meals that are easy to assemble and serve.
One of the biggest challenges for many of us is motivation. The idea of getting active or eating the right foods can be overwhelming. Before you even start, it is easy to get discouraged and think that you won’t possibly be able to manage. The key to motivation is really simple—just go ahead and do it!
Research shows that many older adults use medical reasons as an excuse to avoid activity, when in fact being active could potentially improve their medical issues. The mental barrier is often the biggest stumbling block. Once you have planned an activity geared to your interests and abilities, the easiest way to overcome the mental barrier is to simply start doing the activity.
Once you have set a goal—no matter how small or large—it is always easier to get started. The more goals you achieve, the more motivated you will become. Aging then becomes something you look forward to.
Aging gracefully is a reality for everyone. It begins with allowing yourself to be joyful, healthy and happy.