Pam Farnham, the Community Health Team Manager of Adult Outreach and Education at the UVM Medical Center, offers tips for seniors on staying happy and aging gracefully.
Q: Why is a positive attitude so important when it comes to aging?
A: One of the things that scare people the most is change, whether it’s a change in work or a living situation. The key is to look at the changes as an opportunity and to give it a positive spin. When people retire or their employment ends, they wonder what they are going to do with their time. They can do so much – volunteer, garden, and spend more time with family and friends. Change is inevitable, and how you approach it is so important.
Q: A recent study by Warwick University in the U.K. found that people get happier as they age. In fact, the study found that if you are still physically fit at age 70, then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year-old. Why do you think that is?
A: People underestimate the benefits of physical activity. There’s a huge mental health benefit, too. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins and you feel so much better. I hear people say, “I’m 75 and I’ve never been to a gym or exercised.” Well, you can start now.
I know one woman who at age 79 was diabetic and morbidly obese. She needed two bilateral knee replacements, too. I started going to the gym with her, and the first day I had her walk two minutes on the treadmill. Eventually, she got up to walking 30 minutes on the treadmill and was going to the gym three times a week. Well, she lost 75 pounds in six months and then underwent knee replacement surgery. She didn’t even need to go to rehab afterward, and she breezed through a surgery that would have been difficult for even a healthy person. She is now in her 80s and continues to be active.
Q: How important is it to continue to explore new activities and enjoy existing hobbies, such as gardening, yoga, photography, painting, etc.?
A: Doing these things really keeps your brain active. People fear that cognition changes are a fact of aging, but that’s not true. There are studies that say the more you use your brain – the artistic, creative side of your brain – the better it’s going to serve you. New activities benefit us cognitively, physically and emotionally.
I think one of the keys to aging gracefully and successfully is getting out of your home and not isolating yourself. Unfortunately, sometimes as we age we lose our spouse or partner. How do you replace someone who’s been a lifelong partner? You don’t, but you still need to get yourself out there and stay active.
Q: How can families and caregivers encourage their parents or loved ones to find happiness?
A: Find out what’s important to them. People assume their parents want to stay home rather than live in assisted living or a senior care community, but that’s not always the case. It’s important to have an open dialogue. On the parent’s part, it is also very helpful to have a plan in place. A big part of aging gracefully is to plan for end of life care. Having an advance directive to let your loved ones know your wishes is extremely important.
Q: What are some misconceptions about aging?
A: I think the mental piece is a big one – people assume you’re forgetful because you’re old. A myth of aging is that your mind declines and you don’t have any energy. I came across a study a few years ago about people who lived past 100. The study found that the keys to their longevity included social connectedness, physical activity and eating healthy. In my line of work, the people I find the happiest are the ones who are out nearly every day and have a strong social network of family and friends. It’s all about getting out there, being active, engaging your brain and staying connected.