We are all aging and getting older, yet we all experience the aging process differently.
You probably know people in their 80s who start every day with a walk around the block. You probably also know people in their early 50s who are inactive due to chronic pain or illness.
Do you know how your loved one feels about growing older? If you asked your aging loved one how old they feel, how do you think they’d respond?
Research suggests that age really is just a number, and if you want your parent to live a happy and healthy life, it might help if you checked in with them about their mindset on aging. Here’s why.
Being Old Is a State of Mind
There are many myths about aging, but one of the most pernicious is that aging means declining health and eventual disability. Many of us were taught from a young age to believe that aging is somehow negative, something to be endured, something that makes us less capable — both in our personal and working lives.
That’s simply not true:
- At 80 years old, Wang Deshun walked the catwalk in a high-profile fashion show.
- At 80 years old, Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura reached the summit of Mount Everest.
- At 86 years old, Katherine Pelton swam the 200-meter butterﬂy in 3 minutes, 1.14 seconds, beating the men’s world record for that age group by over 20 seconds.
- At 90 years old, University of Minnesota professor Leonid Hurwicz won the Nobel Prize in economics.
- At 90 years old, Gloria Tramontin-Struck rode her motorcycle 1,700 miles from New Jersey to a motorcycle rally in New Brunswick, Canada.
- At 91 years old, Harriette Thompson completed her 15th marathon.
- At 95 years old, Nola Ochs graduated from college with her bachelor’s degree.
So why aren’t all 80- and 90-year-olds climbing mountains and setting world records?
According to numerous studies, merely expecting physical deterioration increases the likelihood that someone will physically deteriorate. Other research indicates that older adults who have internalized ageism experience greater prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. People with negative perceptions of aging have been found to have:
- Higher rates of cardiac disease
- A median life expectancy that is 7.5 years shorter
- Less chance of recovering from severe disability
- Poorer memory and cognition
- Lower quality diet and exercise regimes
If your loved one believes that they’ve already experienced the prime of their lives and that the time after retirement is just one long, steady decline, then they risk seeing this extra healthy and productive time as a negative. But just because your parent has hit a certain age, which is deemed by society to be somehow old, doesn’t mean that they need to slow down in any area of their life.
Getting older is to be embraced and celebrated, and the extra time we all have is a gift to be used wisely and meaningfully. So how do you help your parent achieve a more positive outlook on getting older?
Focus on Developmental Wellness
The connection between the mind and body is strong. In a study conducted at Yale University, researchers asked 660 participants aged 50 and older to respond to agree or disagree with statements as, “Things keep getting worse as I get older,” “I have as much pep as I did last year,” and “As you get older, you are less useful.” They found that older adults with positive self-perceptions of aging — those who see aging in terms of opportunity and growth — lived on average 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.
Why? Research shows that the more that you are hopeful and realistic about the process of growing older, the more likely you are to maintain your physical and emotional health. If your loved one believes that their life has value and is worth investing in, they will be more likely to engage in preventive health behaviors, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, and following directions for taking prescribed medications.
This is known as developmental wellness — and it’s one of the eight dimensions of wellness for older adults. Characterized by hopeful and realistic attitudes, developmental wellness is all about a person’s perceptions of aging. It includes:
- Being realistic about the challenges associated with later life
- Imagining new ways of conceptualizing older adulthood
- Believing you are resilient and possess many strengths
It recognizes that the number of years you have lived so far is not an accurate indicator or predictor of your performance, capabilities, or skills.
Keys to Embracing Aging
Is your dad always telling you that he can’t do what his physical therapist asks him to try? Or maybe your mom always says she feels too weak and tired to go on a walk with the grandkids?
To help your parent achieve a more positive outlook on getting older, encourage them to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. Getting older might not be something they look forward to, but aging is a reality they have to face. And how they approach the passing of the years has a lot to do with their happiness and health later in life.
“Focusing on what an individual can do provides opportunities for personal fulfillment and provides uplift and optimism for the future,” says Tiffany Van Heel, Leadership and Program Development Manager at Highgate Senior Living. “Challenging perceptions of what is possible allows for the possibility to inspire something new and interesting. For example, we have seen residents who have taken up ballroom dancing when they weren’t initially sure they could dance. A resident was motivated to learn Spanish despite having only been English-speaking their whole life. An individual who had spent her entire life afraid of heights set a goal to conquer it and a few months later floated in a hot air balloon! A man who spent his entire career as a highly esteemed medical professional had a desire to grow his painting skills and eventually held an art show to display all of his work to the local community. There are so many examples of residents moving beyond simply thriving and truly living life to the fullest, and they exist in every Highgate community.”
To help your parent reflect on what they need to do to have a positive outlook on aging and to create a fulfilled and healthy life, download our Healthy Aging Assessment and Worksheet. It will guide you through the eight dimensions of wellness for older adults and includes a wellness assessment to help you and your loved one think about their health and wellness needs and to quickly see what is working and what still needs improvement. The worksheet can help you brainstorm ways to improve and enhance the dimensions of wellness that might benefit from your attention.
Don’t let your parent use age as an excuse to overlook themselves. Now, more than ever, they can make a difference in their health and happiness.