Written by Barb Parcells
When it comes to the subject of aging in this society, there seems to be two very distinct ways of dealing with it:
Not Me! - This approach completely denies the existence of aging... it may happen to other people but certainly not to them. They dye their hair, dress like their children, spend a fortune on creams, lotions, the latest diet fads and herbal promises of eternal youth, countless surgical procedures, and take the advanced Pilates class at the gym. They hide the fact that, after all of that, they require a hot bath, pain killers and and a nap after their workout just like any other person "their age." They also refuse to discuss death and dying in any way, shape or form. "Old" is just not in their vocabulary.
Doomed From Birth - This is more an outright surrender to the enemy rather than an approach. They have bought in to the cultural beliefs surrounding aging: their bodies will deteriorate, they will become dependent on others for their care; they will have to withdraw from friends, family, and society in general because they are no longer relevant or useful; they will surely suffer from every known form of geriatric complaint and malady on the books; they base their own estimated date of death on the track record of their parents and grandparents.
Neither of these belief systems are true. The first one is the offspring of corporate America and the rabid consumerism that says "young sells." The second one is based on the experiences and beliefs of others, older family members who were not exposed to the newest ideas, research and concepts that have Baby Boomers and Elders living way past previous generations and in much better health. So what is the truth about healthy aging?
The truth is that we are all going to get older. All the cosmetics and surgery in the world will not stop the natural progression of our bodies to change as we age. Just as we could not hold on to the bodies we had when we were 5 years old, or 15, or 25, we cannot stop our bodies, the organic container that we use to experience the world, from deteriorating just like any other organic matter on the planet. What we can do, however, is honor it, care for it, and celebrate all that it can do from one day to another. When we embrace who we truly are, that essence that borrows our physical bodies for this lifetime's experiences, we treat it as we would our best friend, with the respect and appreciation it deserves.
Here are a few ways that we can embrace a lifestyle that honors and celebrates healthy aging:
Some of the most important research on healthy aging that has come out over the last few years has to do with areas of the world called Blue Zones. These areas boast the largest number of healthy and active seniors, and a larger proportion of folks who live to be 100, than on average anywhere else. While most of these areas are located in places like the Mediterranean and islands in the Pacific, there is one located in Loma Linda, California, home to the Seventh Day Adventist community. So what is it that makes these places score so high in the number of healthy, longer living elders? It's their diet, among other things. They consume more fruits, vegetables, grains and healthy oils, and less meat and dairy. They also are more likely to make things from scratch. Their traditions keep them from falling prey to fast foods, prepared foods, or unhealthy additives. Many grow their own produce and raise their own animals. They know where their food comes from and what's in it. The current worldwide obsession with organics and GMO's, combined with a wealth of information at our fingertips thanks to the Internet, gives us the perfect opportunity to make healthy choices when it comes to what we put in our bodies to fuel it. Especially as we get older, our vitamin and nutrient needs change and knowing how to meet those changes in a healthy way gives us a much better chance at a longer, healthier life.
Our ability to move our bodies is the first place where we notice the onset of getting older. We can't move as fast as we used to; we have more aches and pains; we develop things like arthritis and stiffness; the stairs start to seem a little harder to climb every day. The worst thing we can do when this happens is to stop moving, to just "give in" and take to our rocking chairs. Getting ourselves moving every day is as important, if not more so, in staying healthier longer as is eating smarter. Getting enough exercise does not have to be painful or expensive. Even a walk around the block is better than no walk at all. Like to dance? How about putting on some music and waltzing around the livingroom for a few? The Twist? The Jerk? The Cha-Cha? Music gets the blood moving, and the body, too. How about a little yoga? No, I don't mean trying to twist yourself into a pretzel. There are programs such as gentle yoga and chair yoga that allows you to stretch and move your body slowly, getting maximum results with less chance of injury. It also feeds your spirit while it strengthens your muscles, not a bad two-for-one deal. Also, you don't have to join a class thanks to the gift of YouTube. You can enoy the benefits without having to leave home or purchase those cute outfits ... a pair of sweats and a t-shirt are just fine!
I can't say enough about this. When we start to believe that our physical deterioration automatically means we have to withdraw from the world, we shut ourselves off from the one lifeline that can make all of the difference. One of the most important results to come out of the research on the Blue Zones was the continued participation of the older folks in the life of the family and the community. Staying connected, especially with folks of all ages, keeps us engaged both physically and mentally. I know of many men and women who become foster grandparents, or who volunteer at their church or other community organization. One group of women I know of gather together every week and knit hats, gloves, scarves, baby blankets, and other items to give to those in need. They meet at the local library and catch up on their families and friends while they knit. They are engaged, they are mobile, and they are doing something useful. Many folks go back to school, or take a course in something they've always wanted to try. At a local craft fair I attended recently, I met a 70 year old man who had taken up woodworking "for fun" and was now engaged in a second career as a furniture maker, meeting new people and providing something beautiful for others.
A Sense of Self
This, probably more than anything else we've mentioned, is the most important thing we can do to embrace where we are at this stage of our lives. We need to stop looking for examples of what we can't do, and start celebrating what we can do, and that list is endless. When I had to give up my beloved yoga practice after a fall that left me with three pins in my hip to heal a fracture, I thought I would never be able to find anything that brought me so much joy and serenity in addition to stronger joints and muscles. Then I discovered the above mentioned chair yoga. With every move I was able to master, I began to understand that it wasn't about what poses I couldn't do, but more about finding ways to accomplish the same result without re-injuring myself. As time passed, not only did I regain much of my strength and flexibility, I was even able to incorporate some of my old standing poses from before. In the end, it was about celebrating who I was, where I was at that moment, and that opened me up to a whole new world I hadn't considered before. It was also through yoga that I adopted a more engaged meditation practice, something I might not have pursued if I hadn't been forced to "sit" and heal. Meditation opened me up to a deeper understanding and appreciation of myself and my place in the Universe.
At the age of 63, I started writing a blog. At 65, I published my first ebook. At 68 I am finishing up the last book of my "Third Age Trilogy" and already planning my next creative adventure. I no longer define myself by what I'm not doing, nor what I am doing either, for that matter. In fact, I don't define myself at all. I wake up in the morning, celebrate the gift of another day, give thanks for the infinite possibilities that reside within that new day, and ask myself, " What can I do today to make myself happy?" Being happy with who I am, in this moment, at this stage of my life, is a gift I can give myself every day. There is no expiration date on happy, no matter how old you are!