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The Selwyn Institute

In the spirit of ageing well

The Selwyn Series - Past Thoughts on Ageing Well

Growing up from middle age

The world is ageing and New Zealand is no exception. In fact, demographics reveal that by 2025 there will be more people aged 65+ than children under 14. An added bonus is living longer—expectations are you’ll live over 20 years longer than we did in the 1950's. 

Meaning there are a whole host of issues, and changes to preconceived notions of ageing, that demand attention. Our view is that these positive challenges represent opportunities as long as we approach them with eyes wide open. 

Many of the ‘bigger’ issues have national significance such as affordable housing and rising health care costs. Living longer means we’ll need to spend more.

So ageing is changing. We’re living longer and are more aware of how to keep ourselves healthy. By ageing well now, we can retain our independence a lot longer, whether this is living in our own home or in a retirement village.

Having more time to contemplate the opportunities and issues round retirement can also mean the chance to pursue a little homework in preparation.

A useful starting point could be looking at Canadian retirement expert Barry LaValley’s book So you think you’re ready to retire? Rather than focusing on fiscal ‘bottom lines’ he instead investigates what it takes to prepare your mind for retirement and understanding concepts such retirement psychology, health, relationships. 

Did I forget something?

There is a strong correlation between ageing and memory loss. It happens but there are things you can do to dramatically stem the tide.  Bear in mind, and don’t forget, that the first ‘signs’ are not an indication that something more serious is inevitable. 

Slower processing is a natural part of ageing. It’s not so much forgetting where you put your car keys, it’s forgetting what car keys are for or thinking you need to put them in the freezer that’s the concern.

According to New Zealand dementia specialist Dr Chris Perkins, 83% of elderly people forget names and about 60% lose their keys.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to see a doctor if you’re concerned – particularly if you have significant changes in lifelong behaviour. But, in the meantime, there’s a great deal you can do to keep yourself sharp.

Here are some ideas:

  1. A healthy body makes a big difference. A little exercise helps improve the circulation of oxygen to the brain, improving reasoning and reaction times.
  2. Eating well keeps your neurons firing, your arteries open and your blood pumping a steady supply of energy and helpful vitamins.
  3. Practice mental fitness. Thinking games are a start but take up new hobbies that are complex and challenging. Whatever you dreamed about doing before might be a starting point now.

The good news is that it’s never too late. Our brains are surprisingly flexible and can rewire themselves as required but the sooner you start, the better.

Have a little faith in me

Interest in spirituality and aging has increased recently, owing to overwhelming evidence of positive health outcomes linked to spirituality and religious participation. Increasing longevity in modern society puts spiritual needs of older adults at the forefront of societal priorities.

Rather than run away from the subject think about ways to embrace it. 

For starters spirituality is often misinterpreted as religion—it can encompass it but it doesn’t have to.

Ageing specialist Dr Chris Perkins says “spirituality may be expressed through religion, but could involve connections to nature, family, art, craft, music or other creative activities, or a broad notion of God that is not attached to any particular system of belief.”

Here are some ways where spirituality can be good for your health.

  1. Religious or not, spirituality can help older people with discussions of death and dying – something they may want to come to terms with.
  2. Spirituality can relieve stress and anxiety, increase wellbeing and it correlates with lower rates of “frailty”.
  3. Spirituality is linked to higher levels of mental and physical health, and even faster recovery from illness.
  4. It can help dementia sufferers hold on to their individuality and sense of self as long as possible.
The wealth of health

The world is awash with compelling evidence that shows physical activity is an integral part of ageing well. Here are some facts that speak for themselves. 

A United States study conducted by Harvard University found that 75 minutes of brisk walking per week – as opposed to staying sedentary – equates to an extra 1.8 years of life expectancy. The study also found that people whose weight is above the recommended level still benefit from physical activity. It seems that whatever your starting point, and however much exercise you do, the more you do it, the longer you live.

Across the Atlantic King’s College in London studied 115 cycling enthusiasts aged 55-79. They were tested to find out how fast they could stand up from a chair, walk three metres, turn, walk back and sit down. The result? Even the oldest participants in the study scored levels that were within the norm for healthy young adults. When you’re fit, age really is just a number.

Kings College London Emeritus Professor Norman Lazarus says, “Inevitably, our bodies will experience some changes with age, but staying physically active can buy you extra years of function compared to sedentary people.”

What works? Fundamentally ANY exercise is good. But find activities that please you and may also involve others. 

  1. If cycling doesn’t spin your wheels try walking, stair walking, dancing, swimming, golf, bowls, yoga or Pilates.
  2. Go back to sports you may have played before—like tennis or even rugby as a Golden Oldie.
  3. Find out what is organized in your particular area or community. An opportunity to exercise can also be a way to meet new people or even have quiet time to reflect on your own health and wellbeing.

Remember, too, that eating well goes hand in hand with physical health. Make sure you get the right nutrients and vitamins by eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Resist the temptation to eat highly processed and packaged meals, even if you are eating alone.

In the end remember the words of Hippocrates: “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”

The company you keep

The world has never been more connected; yet, ironically, people can still feel lonely and isolated. Feelings that are clearly not conducive to a sense of engagement, contentment and belonging. 

The New Zealand Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that 41% of 50 to 84-year-olds are moderately lonely and of these, 10% (roughly 50,000 people) report feeling severely or very severely lonely.

Regardless of age people generally don’t want to be a burden or appear to be weak to those around them which may be a reason that hands aren’t being put up to indicate loneliness. 

Breaking the cycle is a good idea as there are very definite steps that can be taken that, in turn, are beneficial to one’s wellbeing.

As well as mental benefits research shows it pays dividends in their physical health as well, lowering blood pressure, reducing cardiovascular disease and improving memory and anxiety.

In fact, the odds of survival among individuals with strong social ties are 50% higher than those without. If you yourself are in the 50-84 age bracket, there’s a lot you can do to help yourself. Here are some starting points.

  1. Get out of the house – you never know who you might meet.
  2. Don’t have your paper delivered, but instead walk to the shop and buy one. Or if you’re NOT a paper reader still find an excuse to go to the shop.
  3. Join a club or do some volunteer work, as being with other people goes a long way to making life more interesting.
  4. If you can have a dog where you live, and are able to care for one, consider getting one. People often stop and talk to those walking their dogs. The same goes with children if any are available.