The idea of getting older—the change in our routines and our bodies—can be frightening, but it doesn’t have to be.
Guideposts.org spoke with Dr. Marie A. Bernard, the Deputy Director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), about ways we can embrace and even celebrate aging to dispel some of the harmful stereotypes about that inevitable stage of life.
Ignore the Stereotypes
We’ve all heard the horror stories of aging—the brittle bones, loss of memory, the decline in quality of life. It’s enough to scare anyone preparing for what should be their “golden years.” Dr. Bernard says that, contrary to popular opinion, there’s no marker for suddenly becoming a senior citizen.
“In geriatrics practices, we tend to say that older adults are age 65 and onward because that’s when Medicare has generally been available,” Dr. Bernard said to Guideposts.org, adding nothing magically changes in the body between your 64th and your 65th birthday.
“Some people, as they are in their middle years, will develop illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes, maybe even heart problems,” Dr. Bernard continues. “Some people, whether it’s because, genetically, they’re lucky, or they did all the right things from a health perspective, don’t develop problems like that until well past their 70s and 80s. It’s variable.”
Instead, pay attention to the facts (not the myths) about aging, Dr. Bernard said, so you can prepare for them when or if they happen to you.
Enjoy Your Free Time
One benefit of aging is that, historically, older individuals find they have more free time to explore their passions and pursue interests they may have put on the backburner because of familial and career responsibilities.
“It’s been fascinating, to me, to look at people as they’re making that transition from being a person who has to work, because they’re taking care of children and they’re building their career, to having now kind of made it and seeing new freedoms that they hadn’t experienced previously,” Dr. Bernard said. “In fact, we have studies that have shown that there’s greater life satisfaction among older adults than among middle-aged adults.”
Find Ways to Stay Connected
Isolation often plagues the older community, with many aging adults feeling disconnected from friends and family. Because that feeling can quickly lead to depression and other health issues, Dr. Bernard says finding ways to keep a busy social calendar is key. Surprisingly enough, social media is an easy, effective way to do that.
“We certainly have data that shows that older adults are taking advantage of social media, particularly things like email, to keep in contact with family and friends,” Dr. Bernard admits. “We, at NIA, have had a Facebook presence, because a lot of older adults take advantage of Facebook as well.”
If the digital world isn’t a space you feel comfortable exploring, Dr. Bernard suggests getting involved in your local community.
“Volunteering is a really good way of staying connected,” she says. “We have a study, called ‘The Experience Core,’ that matched older adults with children in schools in the Baltimore area, and showed that there was a benefit to both the children and the older adults. The older adults were more active, had better mental health, and better physical health. For the children, they did better in school as a result of that contact with an older adult.”
“The possibility of volunteering is something to consider,” Dr. Bernard continues. “One doesn’t have to be a marathon runner or anything like that, to be able to do those things, and many times volunteer activities may provide transportation for you to be able to get to that site.”
Getting involved with your community also solves another issue many older American face: transportation. Losing the ability to drive is devastating for so many seniors. It’s viewed as an end to their social activities. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Dr. Bernard said having a “network of support, being involved in religious groups, and taking advantage of aging agency programs” also provide seniors with support in getting around. These programs run senior centers, congregate meals, and often provide free transport to events within the community.
As we age, the fear of illness begins to set in. Dr. Bernard believes many aging adults worry about things like memory loss and debilitating illness prematurely, and the stress can actually have a negative effect on their health.
“The research that we support shows that, yes, the number of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s is going to increase precipitously over the next many years, but as a result of the increased number of older adults,” Dr. Bernard explains. “I’m a baby boomer, and we baby boomers are hanging around.”
“When you look at the group of people aged 65 to 74, only a small percentage of people have evidence for dementia,” Dr. Bernard continues. “When you get to 85 and older, maybe as many as one out of three people have clinical evidence for dementia that is causing a problem to their functioning, but that means two out of three don’t. Dementia is not an inevitable consequence of aging. It is one of the things that may develop, and yes, it’s very scary, but we’re working really hard to try to find ways of slowing down or preventing that illness.”
Plan Ahead and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Another proven way to enjoy the later stages of life is to prepare for them. Often after retirement, without a full-time career or family to care for, people feel aimless and become dissatisfied in life. The best way to prevent this is to map out what you want your post-retirement life to look like.
“One of the groups that have particularly been at risk has been non-Hispanic white men,” Dr. Bernard admits. “As they go into that retirement transition, they’re at risk of suicide, because their self-identity was tied up with their careers.
Dr. Bernard said although more and more men continue to work, there are some careers where you are forced out at a certain age. The best approach to that, according to her, is a prophylactic one, where this group is “thoughtful” about what they’re going to do at that time.
“Should a person end up developing true clinical depression, you need to see a healthcare professional and work closely with that healthcare professional,” she added.
“Another time when you can potentially see some challenges for older adults is as they get into really advanced old age and all of their contemporaries have died off,” Dr. Bernard continues. “We’re talking about people in their late 80s, early 90s, and that’s where, again, being very thoughtful about reaching out and developing new networks of friends and supporters is important. That’s where organized groups can potentially be helpful.”
Ultimately, you should treat aging as you would any other part of life.
“Just like they tell you to plan for your finances, you need to plan for your personal life enrichment,” Dr. Bernard says. “People who’ve been successful in doing that tend to have a really easy transition.”