Does your age define you? Do you look in the mirror and think, “Oooh, what happened there?” Do you find yourself walking a bit more slowly? Does it take longer to bounce back after a minor injury? Do you ever walk into a room and wonder what the heck you are doing there? Let’s be real. It happens to all of us. But it is how we react to aging that dictates how well we will age. When we are younger, we long to be an adult. When we become adults, we long to be “young” again. It’s time to simply embrace the moment and celebrate—whatever age we are.
In 1987, scientists John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn published a book entitled “Successful Aging“. In their book, they state that successful aging consists of three main things: being free of disability or disease, having high cognitive and physical abilities, and interacting with others in meaningful ways.
To be honest, I don’t like the term “successful aging.” I prefer “positive aging.” After all, everyone’s definition of success is different. For many, growing older is not seen in a positive light. Take the current pandemic. A lot of media attention has been given to youth. The older generations? Nada. Unless it was an outbreak in a long-term care home. It is like the 50, 60, and 70-year-olds were forgotten about. And that is nothing new. It is almost as if people lose their value once they retire or reach a certain age. In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth!
“I believe that living a full and meaningful life after retirement starts with a cognitive decision not to be old, to claim your spot, to be positive, to know that your journey is not over and that you have a lot to offer and a lot of living left,” says Dr. Aldine du Plessis, a family physician working in Saskatoon City Hospital’s Geriatric Evaluation and Management Unit.
From 2010 to 2014, the World Values Survey asked over 83,000 people of all age groups in 57 countries about their feelings about aging. The World Health Organization (WHO) analyzed the WVS data and found that 60 percent of survey respondents said that they don’t think older people are respected. Interestingly, the lowest levels of respect for older generations were reported in higher-income countries.
But, it is 2022, and there is a slightly noticeable shift in thinking.
Dr. du Plessis is often awed by the inspiring seniors she feels privileged to meet. “People can actively contribute to society at the ages of 80, 90, and up! I’ve met artists, charity workers, musicians, Bridge champions, entrepreneurs, loving parents and grandparents, partners, caregivers, storey tellers, and even an avid tennis player at the age of 94!”
My friend Chris Bowes, who is turning 75 this year, has a very positive outlook on life. “There are more opportunities for older people today, even at work. People are working longer; older people are not sitting at home anymore. Society is changing, and people don’t question their age. People work, look after grandchildren. We’re not put out to pasture anymore.”
Chris has a very independent spirit and is an inspiration to be around. “I guess when you’re independent, there are so many things you must do yourself. The other day, I was out shovelling snow at 6:30 am. I’m the type of person who wants things done yesterday. I don’t wait for anybody to come to do things for me, I do them myself. I’m getting worse as I get older,” she says with a chuckle.
“I don’t feel 74. I don’t ache. I guess I’m lucky. But then how are you supposed to feel at 74? People’s attitudes towards aging have changed. Years ago, most people were considered old in their 60s and 70s, but I don’t think I’m old. “
Chris credits her independent nature to her good health and positive aging. “I’ve always been an independent person. I left home right out of high school and went to business school, then moved around a lot.” Chris’s husband died in a car accident in 1990, leaving her to raise their two sons. She worked in the financial sector, retiring 10 years ago. “I never remarried. My life was my kids. They were into sports and required a lot of driving time. They both left home when they were in their early 20s, so I’ve been on my own for the last 20 years. It never worries me. I always had to work and do things. It keeps me young. “
Chris says her mom was 90 and walked her dog every day. She was also active and enjoyed gardening and walking. Chris plays pickleball twice a week and does aquafit three times a week. Not much of a winter person, Chris rides her bicycle and walks whenever she can in the spring, summer, and fall.
“From a medical perspective,” says Dr. du Plessis, “I can say without any doubt that staying active and pushing your body to do physical work pays off and makes it possible to be a more active participant in life in general as you age. It gives you energy and strength, releases endorphins for maximum happiness, prevents falls and lengthens the ability to remain independent. The rewards are endless. The more sedentary we are, the more muscle mass we lose, the worse our strength and balance get, and the easier we fall and lose independence and quality of life.”
That resonates with Chris. “What are you going to do, sit at home and knit because you’re afraid you’ll fall? You can’t do that. Some people think I should move into a condo, but I’m happy in my home. “
Chris shared a little secret with me (not so secret now!) When she takes off her socks or puts them on, she stands away from the wall or chair. It helps to strengthen your balance. Trust me, it works! She admits that sometimes when she gets down on the floor to do something, she wonders how to get up. “But I don’t think about it too much. I just get up. It gets harder, but you just do it. You can’t start acting old because then you will be old.”
She feels everyone needs to stop blaming things on aging. “Everyone gets to a certain age and thinks, “I’m not a teenager. I shouldn’t do this. ” But, if you can still do it, and if it makes you happy, why stop? ” For instance, the only thing stopping her from buying a pair of the trendy “ripped” jeans, is the fact that she has far too many jeans in her closet already. She is all for natural aging but doesn’t think people, especially women, should change what they have always done just because they are at a certain age.
“I colour my hair and have since I was 19 years old. I like to dress nicely and wear makeup. I always have, so why should I change because I’m older? It’s good for my mental health and I feel better about myself.”
“Society has tried to put older people in a box for many years,” says Dr. du Plessis. “You are too old for those clothes. You should not wear your hair long after a certain age. You should slow down. Be satisfied with being a spectator instead of a participant. You should disappear into the background. But thank goodness for the ones that refused… for the stylish, beautiful women proudly wearing their hair white and long, nails done, jewellery on, continuing to be interesting and individual… fashion is cool when you are old too! Thank goodness for the people who stay present and gift us with their softness, warmth, and happiness that comes from years of giving and loving. Thank goodness for the ones who show up with knee braces and stiff hips and poor mobility, and still play the game, get those corner shots, and win the points with the skill that comes with age and experience. Thank goodness for those who refuse to stop making amazing art and music, despite their struggles with memory and communication. “
Dr. du Plessis adds that mental health is just as important as physical health, and it can be a challenge as people age. Did you know that difficulty hearing has been linked to dementia? (Read this for more info.) Hearing loss can cause social isolation and depression.
“The sooner we have our hearing tested and get those hearing aids in, the longer we will keep our ability to hear,” she says. “The brain will actually forget sounds that it has not heard for a long time, and it might not recognize the sounds that the hearing aids are actually picking up.” Wow! I had no idea!
And some final words of wisdom from Dr. du Plessis. “For me, the most important lesson is to stay relevant, and not give in to mental or physical laziness because you have the time, or you feel that you are entitled to rest. Resting is important, but it is more enjoyable when earned. No matter how old we are, our bodies and minds need to be fed. You lose what you don’t use. Above all, we should never stop learning, having fun, and living each day as if it might be our last. We never know what is waiting around the corner. Social interaction is so important in ageing. It stimulates the brain, makes us happy, motivates and inspires us. It can delay cognitive impairment and cannot be stressed enough.”
Chris agrees. “The more you do nothing, the more you want to do nothing. We all need to push ourselves. It’s so much easier to just sit. Get out and do something. I feel so much better when I do something. I can only clean my house so much!”
Check out the following:
- The Secrets Of Successful Aging – YouTube
- Life Lessons From 100-Year-Olds – YouTube
- Positive aging: Old, happy and healthy | DW English – YouTube
- Isabel Allende: How to live passionately—no matter your age | TED – YouTube
- Positive Aging: Changing Your Mindset About Growing Older | myLifeSite
- Positive Aging in Canada | Dr. Paul Wong (drpaulwong.com)
- Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging | Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (clsa-elcv.ca)
- What is Positive Aging? 10 Tips to Promote the Positive Aspects of Aging (positivepsychology.com)
- Resource Hub for 55 Plus: Saskatoon Council on Aging (scoa.ca)