I’ve spent my career promoting lifelong vitality and have learned that great information and even programs don’t motivate action until people, of any age, first believe in their ability to change their circumstances. It’s absolutely proven that loss of function can be prevented and even reversed with resistance training and other exercise interventions, but many people don’t take advantage of these proven programs.
Part of the problem is negative expectations of aging – i.e. “it’s normal to become frail as I age”. But it’s simply not true. It’s very common. It’s very predictable. But it’s not normal and it’s not inevitable. And even if something challenges your functional independence it’s important to embrace a mindset of possibilities, rather than focusing on deficits or disabilities.
Young people with disabilities are given tools, resources, and encouragement to overcome challenges and live life fully in spite of them – and they do! But older adults faced with functional challenges are most often just given tools to cope with challenges. There’s a profound difference between the mindset of overcoming versus coping– resulting in profoundly different outcomes. Take age out of the equation and look at challenges through a lens of resilience. Actively support self-efficacy, self-esteem, optimism, purpose, mastery and control – the building blocks of resilience. Embrace adaptive strategies to live fully rather than coping strategies that create a smaller world.
Rejecting stereotypes and believing in possibilities will move us away from the – when in danger or in doubt, run in circles scream and shout approach to health challenges, and towards environments where people feel competent and compelled to live fully in spite of challenges.
A recent newspaper article really gave me pause. It described technology solutions for keeping track of aging parents but also revealed both ageist expectations and what my friend Teresa calls “Helicopter Childrening”. Family members described this technology as both comforting in the short term and as a tool to know when it’s time to step in and take over: notice NOT IF – when. A parent “under surveillance” also described how her daughter lectured her on staying up too late at night.
I applaud adaptive strategies that help people live where they choose to for their full lifespan, and technology monitoring daily activity against a pre-determined “norm” for an individual can be a helpful tool. But strategies to support safety and security must be balanced with a commitment to also support the building blocks of resilience like self-efficacy, self-esteem, mastery and control, optimism, and hope.
Consider some low-tech solutions too! Instead of watching and waiting “until”, employ the research proving functional loss can be prevented and in many cases reversed and create a family plan to maximize functional ability. Adult children who feel compelled to comment on a parents choices during the day (staying up late, sleeping late, etc.) need only to consider how much they would personally appreciate that type of interference in daily life.
Take a cue from the disability movement and prioritize an individuals feelings of self-efficacy, autonomy, and mastery and control over their own life – regardless of challenges. Employ the concept of the “dignity of risk” to avoid creating a culture dominated by illness management. Some risk is preferable to hovering, second guessing decisions, and trying to parent your parents. Take age out of the equation and use technology in a way that helps create a care partnership and culture of “whole person” well-being.
A new study following 1,000 older adults for 11 years revealed that poor heart health increased the risk of dementia by two to three times. Do your brain a favor (and your heart) by embracing cardiovascular exercise and healthy eating.
An interesting study in 2014 out of Uppsala University in Sweden showed that, independent of increased physical activity, reducing sitting time resulted in increased telomere length. The study measured telomere length in blood cells of 49, 68 year old, sedentary, overweight individuals. After a 6 month physical activity intervention researchers found that telomere lengthening was only significantly associated with reduced sitting time. Clearly more study with larger groups is warranted, but evidence is mounting that simply standing more than sitting in your day pays significant health dividends.
A group based at UCLA wants more elders using public parks. Designing public parks that meet diverse needs is a great idea, but I’m having a hard time with the idea that there should be “senior specific” spaces. Why should a space be different based on age? Doesn’t it have more to do with physical function, visual and auditory perception, and above all – personal preferences? Age doesn’t make someone want to be isolated into an age restricted park. Designing different types of parks – pocket parks for meditation/reflection, active parks, parks focused on maximizing social interaction, etc. makes sense – but to do that you have to take age out of the equation and focus on creating opportunities for individuals regardless of age or functional status.