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Self-Care Past Age 55 Isn't What You Think

Life itself is the gift of aging, but don't take it for granted.

What is it about aging that bums you out? Overweight? Wrinkles? Jowls? Age spots? Not having the time to do all those things you thought you’d do by now? A single day still has the same number of hours in it that it did when you were 35, but time is now playing a cruel joke on you. I get it. Life itself is the gift of aging, however some of us feel it’s also a sin to look that gift horse in the mouth.

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Face it. We can’t know if our bodies are pre-programmed for some conditions and diseases in older age, but we also don’t have to live as if they are inevitable. If life is truly about quality and not quantity, then taking care of ourselves is the magic elixir, offering us the most bang for our "life buck." If I study my own genetics, I have already outlived most members of my mom’s side but can only hope to live as long as the women on my dad’s side. My paternal Greek great-grandparents lived past 100 but didn’t actually die of old age. They died after their village was starved out by the Germans in WWII. I currently have aunties in their 90s living in the old country. So there is nature and there is nurture. Even if I am pre-programmed for health issues, however, who knows if taking an active role in maintaining my health might make whatever happens to me less severe than if I never made the effort?

Let’s look at the body first. If you are anywhere close to my age it’s not a fun topic. All I know is that an old TV commercial advertising a medical alert necklace device showing an old person yelling, “Help! I’ve fallen down and I can’t get up!” became a memorable motivator as I passed middle age. While it’s true that I exercise, it’s not to look like Jane Fonda. Thanks to you, my most recent blog post, Aging and Exercise: What Are You Willing to Accept? went absolutely bonkers, receiving viral attention and eclipsing the number of hits received by all of my other posts combined. Why? Perhaps it’s because I am brutally honest when writing about aging. I see no reason not to whine about what aging does to me while continuously looking for ways to make it stray off course.

In this post, I will be sharing some of my own personal motivators. Like a singer who writes torch songs drawing from painful life experiences, some of us wake up to the emotional moments that have helped to shape us. By now I hope you have figured out that I am not out to simply become your partner in aging. My posts are meant to help give you a little push if you need it. A lot of people hate exercise and despise sweating (including me). There are few things they look forward to less than working out. But when looking at the natural progression of aging past 55, it’s normal to expect a loss of balance, flexibility, and range of motion.

I had an immigrant grandfather who eventually died of other complications after falling and breaking his hip. A physical therapist I know told me that broken hips are followed by a shorter life expectancy not because of the injury itself but because of all the health issues it can lead to. I remember my dad saying that after that fall his dad was never the same. Two years later my "popou" was gone. Exercise past age 55 is about preserving those bodily skills that help keep you upright, mobile, and in balance — not about building up bulging leg muscles, although it’s those leg muscles that will need to catch you in a fall or make the fall less damaging. If sitting is indeed as harmful as cancer-causing sugar in the diet, then my career as a writer has handed me a condition that can be treated with exercise only. You can’t take a pill for the damage sitting can do to you. Once you start moving, I think you’ll find that being continually sore from exercise beats bursitis or tendonitis any day of the week.

My angelic mom died of heart disease at age 69 following surgery meant to save her. Mom was a perpetually sweet but nervous type who found it difficult to relax as if everything she did for her family was a sacred duty and act of love all rolled up in one. She was a care-taking product of her times, and I know in my very core that they don’t make women like her anymore. Heart disease ran in her genes, but to my knowledge, back then no one really knew how to try to prevent it from happening. In those days older people who regularly exercised and watched everything they ate were the exceptions and not the rule, sometimes surfacing in magazine stories as if they were anomalies. So if I keep taking care of myself, will I be cheating heart disease? I will never know. But I WILL know that I am doing all I personally can to prevent it. It’s kind of like raising a child. You infuse all the love, common sense and knowledge you can in your kid before they turn 18 and the rest is up to them. In my case, I am doing all I can to prevent dementia, cancer, and heart disease from forming, but the rest is up to my body’s reactions to it.

Let’s move on to teeth. In a 2006 report, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote, "the baby boomer generation will be the first where the majority will maintain their natural teeth over their entire lifetime.” Fluoridation of drinking water, the advent of dental plans covering routine teeth cleanings, and the encouragement of flossing and brushing have all contributed to the idea that dentures are not a part of most people’s future. Let’s put that on steroids and talk about how older Americans are also opting for braces. More adults than ever are “bracing” themselves, according to the American Association of Orthodontists.

Even though the lion’s share of orthodontic patients are still tweens and teens, the number of adult patients seen by orthodontists increased by 40 percent between 1989 and 2012. By 2014, that figure jumped from 1 million to 1.4 million and today it’s even higher. Again, it’s not always about aesthetics. In my case, it’s about improperly positioned teeth that are so crowded that even floss harps become shredded feathers. A more precise alignment of teeth can help prevent dental issues later in life that stem from crowding pressure, tooth decay, and the abnormal wear of enamel surfaces. Did you know that a build-up of plaque on your teeth can also mess with your heart? Ask your dentist about it. So why the rise in adult braces—and why now? Invisalign® and other options for braces suddenly have adults sitting up and taking notice, including those who actually had braces as kids and stopped wearing their retainers long ago. Having straighter teeth and a better bite means having a better chance of keeping my teeth for the long term. So off to the orthodontist I go, willing to sit there routinely surrounded by 13-year-olds for the next 18 months. As for the expense of braces, my orthodontist (like most) makes it easy for me to pay over time while my teeth move from crowded to gorgeous. I can think of few better investments.

As for skin care, there are those of us who terrorized their skin when they were younger. We gave not a thought to aging because our 60s were eons away. Yeah, right. Fooled me. We also had very limited knowledge of skin cancers at the time. Baby oil and iodine were a part of my skin’s diet from April to October, making me look like a shiny whole chicken ready for the roasting pan as I lie prone in my back yard or burying my toes in the sand at the beach. That elixir was replaced with an orange gel called Bain de Soleil. Tanning was an obsession. I even had a sun lamp on a stand that I would use when it was too cold to get a tan outside. The results? Three melanoma surgeries (thank God, all fire drills so far) and sun damage in the form of hyperpigmentation. While I am blessed with thick Mediterranean skin, it is not an olive color, so I had no amount of built-in SPF as I aged. What most people don’t realize, however, is that even a tan (without the burn) is a form of skin damage no matter how attractive it makes you look or feel. I see the dermatologist every 6 months for more suspicious spots and shiver in my shoes during each visit. In the meantime, during the warmer months, I have perfected the art of the fake tan because my eyes are still blinded by the normal color of my skin. Call it a form of skin dysmorphia.

Even if your budget has no room for luxuries like a med spa or an aesthetician, skincare after age 55 is a must. Ladies — remember to drink lots of water, take your makeup off EVERY night, invest in a great night cream, buy a skin-tightening lotion for your neck, and send away for those slimy gold collagen masks on Amazon. I guarantee you will see a difference, feel good about doing all you can to minimize the signs of aging, and your skin will thank you for pampering it.

I may not have covered all bases. So much to pay attention to. Vitamin supplementation, watching your diet and watching your weight can reverse or eliminate all kinds of ailments that can happen in older age. In fact, overweight/obesity can often be a key factor in opening yourself up to a variety of ailments, aches and pains you may not have experienced had you taken care earlier on. But that’s for another blog post, along with the new practice of keeping tweezers handy for those pesky new chin hairs you feel while watching TV.

So when you read about how diligent I am trying to become with self-care, know that my motives are not that of a 30-something or even a 40-something. They are that of someone who is trying hard to take care of what is left after a lifetime of abusing herself without a second thought.

Ahhh... the beauty of older age. Unlike Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, taking care of myself is not “for another day.” I finally do give a damn.

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