Wellness Across the Lifespan
August 21st is National Senior Citizen Day and it offers the perfect opportunity to discuss the perception of older adults in the United States. According to the Oxford Dictionary, aging is the process of growing old. In many countries as a person ages he or she is seen as wise and worthy of respect. American society in general, however, doesn’t hold the same reverence for old age. Even with people living longer than ever before our society is ageist and begins to think differently of older adults once they begin to struggle with various tasks that may be easier for the younger population. Various implicit beliefs suggest that society often cares more for one’s chronological age, the age found on their birth certificate, rather than the functional age of how the person appears in comparison. Society and Hollywood also seem to propagate the myth that aging is a bad thing.
Heather Haslem led a recent CASAT training entitled Health and Wellness Across the Lifespan that addressed many of the issues surrounding growing older. Ms. Haslem is the Coordinator for Academics and Education at the Sanford Center for Aging at UNR and is also a certified health and wellness coach. The workshop explored different techniques and best practices for supporting patients/clients in living the life that they desire. This article expands upon the training and provides additional resources to assist behavioral health professionals with their work with senior citizens. During her training Ms. Haslem asked this question:
What are the words or images that come to mind when thinking about older adults?”
Most answers correlated older adults to grumpy and forgetful, individuals who are bad drivers, and stubborn to change. Ms. Haslem responded by stating that these words are mostly stereotypes and many older adults live independently, have good memories, and are effective workers.
While the body does change as it ages, growing older is not as bad as many fear. Results from a study on the mental health of adults aged 21-100 found that although older adults sometimes experience some physical and cognitive changes as they aged, on average they had better mental health than younger adults. The authors discussed one possible reason for this improvement stemmed from improved wisdom due to more life experiences. In a LA Times article discussing this study, Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, did not find it strange that seniors experience better mental health than younger adults. She said that seniors’ priorities begin to shift away from worrying about negative emotions and instead begins to shift towards emotionally meaningful goals. This change of perspective is a good reminder for clinicians in their work and is also helpful in positively shaping one’s outlook on life.
However, not all individuals have been fortuitous to these beneficial life decisions and many may not be experiencing the joy that the above studies promise. As behavioral health professionals it is important to remember that it can be a challenge for older adults to change their mindset so quickly when the feelings of loss caused by the events such as the death of loved ones or feeling of lack of purpose due to retirement. IBM created a report on Loneliness and the Aging Population that addressed how business and government could address this reality, because for many individuals, this transition is not easy. The image below, from the same IBM report, reveals this unique challenge.
With all the concerns mentioned above there is hope. The IBM paper provides some thoughts and potential solutions. Other researchers also provide ideas and tips to living a better life. In their book Successful Aging Dr. John Rowe and Dr. Robert Kahn researched the factors that contributed to how well a person ages. This book explains how changes in diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and positive relationships, among others play a dramatic role in how well someone ages. Their results came from data from the MacArthur Foundation’s Aging in America Study and found that lifestyle choices, more than genes, contributed to how well a person ages. The University of Arkansas Extension Program found similar results from their research with centurions, individuals who are over 100.
They shared twelve keys:
- Keep a Positive Attitude
- Eat Smart and Healthy
- Ensure Regular Physical Activity
- Maintain Regular Brain Activity
- Have Plenty of Social Activity
- Stay in Tune with the Times
- Be Prepared Safety-wise
- Know your Health Numbers
- Manage your Stress
- Keep your Finances in Order
- Get Plenty of Sleep
- Take Time For your Self
These twelve keys are self-explanatory and useful for living a healthy life. The article goes into further detail on each key and could be valuable for individuals of any age but are critical for individuals as they age. Ms. Haslem discussed that ageing doesn’t just happen overnight, it is a process that begins at conception, and ends at death. All lifestyle choices and behaviors impact our future selves and practicing these twelve keys eases that transition.
A great organization for older adults to practice those twelve keys is the Osher Life-Long Learning Institute (OLLI). With 121 institutions throughout the United States, “OLLI offers short-term educational experiences, leadership and volunteer opportunities for adults 50 and older. OLLI seeks to foster intellectual stimulation, new interests and personal development through academic pursuits, and to provide a community in which to gather.” There are two separate organizations in Nevada: one in Las Vegas and the other in Reno. OLLI runs programs nearly every day including language classes, lectures, computer courses, hikes, and many other stimulating events. It is a great social outlet where one can keep both the brain and body sharp while also having fun. Organizations such as OLLI can do wonders for the quality of life for older adults and could be a good idea for behavioral health professionals to keep in his or her pocket if clients are needing suggestions.
Aging is a reality a person must deal with every day he or she is alive. As humans are now living longer than at any other time in history, there is more time to continue learning and exploring than before. While many in society fear growing old, for the many people already in or moving towards the later stages of life, there are fun and beneficial ways to enjoy these years. For more information on aging please explore our Healthy Aging Learning Lab or search for other downloads in our Resources section. Future trainings on this and other relevant topics can be found through CASAT.