Embrace Life by Aging with Grace, Gratitude, and Memoirs

Research shows that caring, fitness, reading, and memoirs promote healthy aging.

Posted Dec 29, 2016

Courtesy of Lois Ardito 2015
Source: Courtesy of Lois Ardito 2015

Whenever I receive news about aging, I am either enlightened or discouraged. Positive projects across the country remind me of the contributions of dedicated caregivers and policy makers. But on the flip side, I am saddened to see how many in an aging population can be neglected to the point of becoming invisible. Generations Beat Online editor Paul Kleyman reports on the gamut. But here are three highlights—aging with dignity, aging through fitness, aging and memories—that should encourage us to embrace aging with grace and passion.

Aging with Dignity

Filmmaker Matt Perry, whom I met during a conference on aging at which we were both journalism award recipients, is spearheading a unique newsletter. In addition to his twice-monthly column on aging—which covers art, exercise, brain health, spiritual issues, end-of-life care, and, as he puts it, "everything in-between," he is adding video coverage, editorials by state aging experts, and engagement via social media, such as Facebook Live. Perry's soon to be released Aging with Dignity newsletter is through the California Health Report. 

When I asked him what aging with dignity meant to him, he said:  "I mean counteracting the prevailing attitude that 'getting old sucks.'"  He added:

“Many people are getting wise to the fact that aging can be a second childhood, or like going to college again, with the opportunity to learn new things we’ve put off for decades because we don’t have the time.

"We overlook the simple truth that older adults are part of a natural continuum from youth to adulthood to later life.  They typically want exactly the same things everybody else wants  They want to be valued and they want to matter. They want to be moved by beautiful music and art.  They want to be held, hugged, and loved.  They want to be part of a community, to be seen and heard—to belong.

 "We do a poor job of providing healthcare for older adults because they are more complicated patients, often with chronic diseases. But we do an even poorer job caring for them emotionally, spiritually, even sensually.  Although behavioral health is slowly becoming a part of health insurance plans for the aging, which is a good step, the real answer lies in creating community connections.  This immediately improves physical and mental health, and it’s so simple!  

"Older adults often have the benefit of greater perspective, deeper wisdom, and more patience.  Would you really want to trade that in for being young and ignorant?  Not me.  The real challenges in aging are not in the aging process itself, but in how we look at it."

Aging and Fitness/ Exercising the Brain

Colin Milner is founder of the International Council on Active Aging and its Journal on Active Aging. Kleyman tells us that Milner has been “instrumental in challenging the neglect and ageism long embedded in the fitness field.”  He has advocated for increased funding and national policies as these relate to physical activity and aging. 

From the National Institute on Aging we learn that “Researchers have also shown that exercise can stimulate the human brain’s ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones that are vital to healthy cognition."(NIA/NIH). 

Exercising the brain. During a breakout session discussing cognition at the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Toni P. Miles, M.D., Ph.D., pointed out: “Our brains are composed of muscle fiber.  And we all know that muscles improve with use.  It is vital to your brain’s health that it engage in strength and conditioning that come through cognitive stimulation." She is director of the Institute on Gerontology at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health

To exercise your brain, try reading. The NIH/NIA also pointed out that “Mentally stimulating activities such as reading books and magazines, going to lectures, and playing games are also linked to keeping the mind sharp.”

In reminiscing about aging, Mark Herrmann writing for Above the Law said “growing old changes your perspective on things. You no longer count the number of laps that you’ve run, but instead focus on the number of laps remaining in the race.” He also put reading in perspective:

"Suppose, at age 60, that you have a life expectancy of 25 years—you might make it until age 85. Let’s do some more painful arithmetic: 26 books per year times 25 years equals a total of 650 books that you have left to read in your life.

"If you’re planning to make your way through the 1,000 books that all educated people must read before they die, you’re already out of time. Think real hard when you make your next choice from the bookshelf. You’d be crazy to devote this week to something that isn’t worth the effort. "(I Grow Old. . . I Grow Old. . . I Shall Wear The Bottoms of My Trousers Rolled.)

Aging and Memoirs/Gratitude

When Jay Newton-Small was asked to fill out a 20 page questionnaire for her father at the assisted living center, she instead wrote his story. On her website MemoryWell she tells us "Here's the story I wrote for him that transformed his care." ABC News recently reported: "Alzheimer's and dementia patients benefit from MemoryWell."

As someone who has taught memoir writing to octogenarians at an assisted living facility, had parents who traveled with Frank Sinatra, and is writing “Italian Kisses: Grandma’s Wisdom,” memoir projects are dear to me. Further, research shows that it is beneficial to families and staff who can look beyond the sometimes belligerent resident.

When my own parents became victims to the "Memory Thief" and moved to a nursing home, they kept lively by regaling the staff with stories of "Ole Blue Eyes."  Because we knew the importance of this experience, we shared photos of their travels with caregivers. Our parents became celebrities themselves and loved every moment of attention. Asking a question about their "high life" days, could calm them during moments of agitation.

With advocates working on dignity, exercise, and memories we can be grateful that elders have people who believe in them, people who are looking out for their well being, and people who will tell their stories even when they are unable to do so themselves. But more importantly, I ask seniors everyone to find three reasons to be grateful each day.  It will enliven you and bring a smile to your face.

(Earlier articles on aging written as 2012 MetLife Foundation Journalist in Aging Fellow, a program collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.)

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson / www.ritawatson.com