Aging Well Is A State of Mind

October 4, 2021

As we age, health becomes more important.  Thanks to improvements in medicine and health, we live longer lives now.  As such, it’s even more important than ever before to develop healthy habits as we get older.

September is Healthy Aging Month, which was designated in order to focus national attention on the positive aspects of growing older. The “Healthy Aging Campaign” was established 15 years ago, and since then, individuals help others become aware of their physical and mental health, diet, social skills, and even financial situations; all factors that contribute to successful aging.

Lindsay Kafka, RN, Long Term Care Case Manager for Visiting Nurse Homecare and Hospice of Carroll County recently shared these tips on how to build your resiliency and take a realistic and proactive approach to aging well.

Kafka’s background has given her a unique perspective on what it means to age well. A former lawyer specializing in estate planning and elder law, she had previously helped people with their advanced directives and health care decision-making. Now as a Registered Nurse, she understands the clinical aspects of preparing to grow older. 

In her line of work, she’s seen that a lot of the frustrations that patients and families encounter are the collision of their expectations against the reality of what growing older means. She shared, “It’s the expectation of what they should be able to do versus what they can do. You have to set yourself up to get through it as gracefully as possible, but still be realistic that there are going to changes.”

The changes could be chronic illnesses like diabetes, chronic heart failure, or COPD. It could be declining vision, muscle mass or memory. Some changes are out of your control, but there are ways to have better outcomes.

Kafka recommends that those in their 50s, 60s, and 70s start looking ahead to build resiliency – psychological, emotional, and physical, along with proactive healthcare. Here are her recommendations to remember for Healthy Aging Month:

Maintain Social Networks

Whatever health burdens you’re dealing with, you will probably deal with them better if you have a social network (and we don’t mean Facebook). There are too many people of great age who are extremely alone and isolated. And because of that isolation, their mental health may be impacted. Isolation can also impact how we navigate the healthcare system. Kafka explained, “People can be too alone with their medical decision making. In other words, no one else is aware of what’s going on with them, and no one can help them, think through their options, make decisions, and help them navigate.

If you’re all alone, at the doctor, trying to take on what they’re saying, you’re overwhelmed trying to navigate that.” If you are able to tap your social network – be it a family member, friends or a faith community – they can help you navigate the healthcare system and understand the choices you face. It’s also crucial to put an advance directive into place. It’s a simple document that designates someone to make healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to do for yourself. 

Socializing is something that has no cost and is something that anybody can do. Regardless of any underlying health issues that are out of your control, you can still control how you maintain those social connections. This also helps avoid the loneliness factor, which can bring about depression. “Mental health challenges can have downstream effects as someone for instance with diabetes may be less motivated to measure blood sugar and watch what they eat.”

Build Your Healthcare Team

People in their 50s and 60s can think ahead for their future healthcare needs. This could mean anticipating the need for specialists for chronic disease or switching to local medical providers versus those requiring a long drive.

Kafka continued, “Don’t be reactive. Don’t wait until you are in a crisis. Be proactive and realistic in how you consume your healthcare, now and in the future.  If you had something happen that made you less physically able to see providers at a distance, what would you do? Have a team in place. Think ahead to what specialists you may need.”

Read Up on Aging

What is realistic to expect when you age?  “Be curious about the changes that come with aging, because those changes are biological. You can be realistic about what the ultimate decline that comes with aging is about.”

Have an Exercise Program

We all lose muscle mass as we age. Research and better understand loss of muscle mass and how to combat that with an exercise program. Kafka explains, “You don’t have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Walking, Swimming. Whatever is accessible. Do what you can given physical limitations. If you have sore knees, do Tai Chi. Do gentle yoga. It’s critical for strength, flexibility, range of motion, and balance”

Maintain Balance

If you have balance and strength, you’re going to be in a much better position to prevent falls. She cautioned, “Avoid falls and stay out of the hospital where you can end up getting deconditioned and could lead to a cascade of other issues. Take environmental precautions. Clean up the clutter. Clear pathways. If the doctor recommends a cane or walker, use them. Don’t be a hero.” 

Engage Your Brain

If you retire, have hobbies and projects. Being engaged with the world around you keeps you younger. Volunteer. Learn something new. Take a class. When you don’t have those things, your world gets narrower. Kafka added, “I notice that’s when people focus on how sick they are, or on their functional limitations. If your vision gets weak, go to audiobooks which are free through the local library. Be curious as you head from mid-age to older age. Be connected with others in the community.”

Listen to Music

Listen to music that you enjoy. It helps your brain. It’s good for your mental health. Kafka said, “Music therapy is known to help stroke victims. It stimulates the brain and brain recovery. If it helps with brain recovery it’s probably pretty good for a healthy brain too. It makes your environment more pleasant.” 

Stay Connected

Covid-19 has pointed out for all of us the importance of connection as we’ve all been so deprived of our normal connections during the pandemic. Across age ranges, from children to seniors, we now are aware of its importance to our mental health and overall health. 

Kafka finished, “The good that’s come out of Covid, as we return to normal life, is to remember that and keep it in the forefront in how we approach our lives in the future. Find ways to stay connected creatively even when there are barriers. This year it was Covid. For people who have limitations, they can find other creative ways for them and us to stay connected. These are valuable members of our community and we are all missing out if we don’t stay connected to them.”

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