By Maureen Gebhards, LPC, John R. Day & Associates, Christian Psychological Associates
When I was 35, I remember being home for Thanksgiving and watching my 77-year-old father carrying a roaster up the narrow and treacherous basement stairs (hot roaster full of a 22-lb turkey). It was the first time I was struck with the notion that my dad might not be invincible. He didn’t seem steady on his feet; I was worried for him. He survived. The turkey was fine. However, that moment nagged at me. How did it happen that I came to an age where my dad is not invincible? What is it that we can do to encourage engagement while keeping elders safe?
As our nation—particularly the Baby Boomer generation—grows older; more and more of us are finding ourselves in similar situations: the old reliable concepts of our parents are fading, being replaced by a nagging fear of their mortality, and increasing debilitation. In addition, Generation Xers are suddenly feeling the first pangs of their own aging.
It’s all okay. It’s the natural progression of life. After all, caring for aging parents is certainly better than the alternative. But, what can we do to improve the blessed march we share with our parents and others towards old age?
In addition to the stressors we feel regarding our parents’ mortality; Gen Xers are finding themselves in a novel environment—getting AARP subscription notices, more aches and pains, reminders about retirement planning, first colonoscopies . . .
It’s normal to feel a bit uncertain at this juncture. Having the 1980s as our developmental backdrop with heady bratpackers, “greed is good” Gordon Gekko, “winning” the Cold War; we have felt invincible for years! With that background, we have a fundamentally sound base on which to delve into our middle and late adulthood.
Ideally, our loved ones (and we) are “aging successfully.” Successful aging is impacted by several factors: physical health, emotional stability, financial well-being, and social engagement, just to name a few.
For too long, we as a culture have accepted the idea that “old” people are, in general, addled, crippled, or suffer dementia. One of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, sets out several myths on aging, some of which are that older adults do not need as much sleep as they used to; that they should not exercise so as to avoid injury; and that older individuals cannot learn new things.
Not so! We are not passive recipients of either our genetic makeup or of our past. We have the ability to constantly change our circumstances, our outlook, our fate.
The pioneering work on successful aging was done by John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn in 1987 and offered a three-pronged model: avoidance of disease and disability; maintenance of physical and cognitive function and engagement in social and productive activities. Since that time, a multitude of other factors that contribute to success in aging have been suggested. The underlying premise of any and all recommendations is the idea of extending optimal functioning (physical, cognitive, psychological, social) well into our older years.
All of the advice on aging may seem very familiar—eat right, get enough rest, stay socially active—because the advice is much the same as the prescription for healthy living throughout the lifespan. As the old adage goes, “use it, or lose it.”
With these concepts in mind, what would it look like if two or more generations could team up for the benefit of both? If, as a Generation Xer or even a Millennial, one is lucky enough to still have parents, aunts or uncles, or other older acquaintances in their lives; a great approach could be to commit to a bigenerational (or even multigenerational) concerted effort to age with strength, community, and grace.
This approach would serve a multitude of purposes, but primarily, it would help with motivation and accountability. It is always easier to postpone or outright ignore the need for exercise if left to our own devices. If someone else is relying on (and looking forward to) our presence, it’s much harder to take a pass. In addition, it encourages engagement and awareness. The more we see of each other, the better we can observe subtle changes in health, attitude, and overall well being.
As spring approaches and the pandemic winds down, now is a good time to check in with one another and make plans for shared activities.
In Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, Sanjay Gupta, MD, notes that “SuperAgers” don’t act like old folk. What better way to avoid “acting old” than spending time with younger people? He notes that AARP has defined five pillars of brain health. To address these pillars in our own lives, we could reach out to one another and make a commitment to doing at least one or two per day as a team and making at least a few of them habits.
Move: Take a walk or hike with a friend—make it a regular date. Check your local park district for classes or open sessions for an activity that appeals to you.
Discover: Enroll in a class, attend one seminar, watch one Ted Talk on something that interests you but that you know little about—then share what you have learned with someone else. You are never too old to learn or teach.
Relax: This is the easiest pillar of all! But don’t let it just be an excuse for watching television or taking a nap—lots of relaxation can come from shared activities such as sewing bees, coloring groups or game nights.
Nourish: What better way to connect than with a meal, coffee, or snack? This nourishes the body, mind and spirit.
Connect: Most interaction is good, particularly if we intentionally make it so. Make it a point to engage, check in, and enjoy fellowship.
For more information or to book an appointment, contact John R. Day & Associates, Christian Psychological Associates, located at 3716 West Brighton Ave., Peoria—phone 309-692-7755 or 102 North Main St., Bloomington—phone 309-692-7755. Visit us online at www.christianpsychological.org.