Living life to its fullest
By following simple health and nutrition tips, seniors can enjoy healthy aging.
A couple of noon hours a week, George Martin can be found at a downtown Vancouver fitness class, balancing on top of a big, bright stability ball or doing multiple sets of bicep curls with heavy weights. At 78 Martin keeps up with the best of them.
In Ottawa Ivan Acorn heads to the office every day at a financial services firm, where he specializes in mutual funds. Besides working full-time, the chartered accountant has just started taking tap dance lessons. He’s 87.
Calgary’s Anne Muir has a jam-packed schedule: the 65-year-old retired librarian fills her days volunteering, taking art classes, doing yoga, walking, lifting weights, attending church, and getting together with friends.
Sixty is the New 40
There’s no denying that today’s 60-year-old acts and feels like yesterday’s 50- or even 40-year-old. By 2031 Canada will be home to about 9 million seniors, up from 4 million in 2005. Today men who make it to age 65 can expect to live another 13 years, according to Statistics Canada, while women can expect to live about another 17. They might want to take cues from people such as Martin, Acorn, and Muir, who are role models when it comes to healthy aging. How do they do it?
For Acorn, working is vital to his well-being. Asked when he’ll retire, he deadpans, “Just like Warren Buffett said, ‘Three years after I’m dead.?
He laughs, then explains why, after more than 50 years, he’s still part of the daily grind. “It’s interesting work; it’s intellectually stimulating. My theory is if you keep spinning along, you’ll keep moving. If you stop, you’ll be horizontal.”
This is coming from a man who, after having joined the army in 1941, landed in France on D-Day. (Hopefully younger readers will know when that was–June 6, 1944.) The Regina native returned home in 1946 and later settled in Ontario, where he and his late wife raised two daughters.
Besides maintaining a career he loves, Acorn, a grandfather of two, attributes his good health to “luck and genes.” His parents were remarkable in their own right–gardening, playing bridge, and painting until late in their long lives–they both nearly made it to 100.
Martin, too, comes from “good stock.” His mom died at age 105, his dad at 91. Pushing 80, Martin hasn’t slowed down one bit. Along with those fitness classes, the former Canadian Pacific Railway supervisor also walks, bowls, and plays badminton. He travels to Alberta to see his two kids and four grandkids. Plus, he volunteers with two organizations. He’s a driver for the Freemasons’ Cancer Car Project (in which Freemasons drive cancer patients to their treatments), and as a Shriner, he spends time with sick kids.
Staying busy is part of what keeps Martin well; so is having an upbeat outlook, something that isn’t always easy for the affable senior. Three years ago he lost his wife to cancer. They were married for 54 years, and it’s clear Martin’s heart is still broken. Still, he says, life goes on. “You’ve really got to stay positive,” he says. “It’s medicine in itself.”
Muir concurs. She finds it crucial to stay connected to the world around her. “Keep engaged,” she says. “Whatever you love doing, just do it. If you have a passion, follow it.”
Contributing to Muir’s quality of life is her Anglican faith. She’s also found helpful advice in a book she urges others to read: Yale surgery professor Sherwin B. Nuland’s The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being (Random House, 2007). “It’s so full of common sense–psychological and physiological. It addresses how the body ages, how the mind ages.”
Exercise, work, volunteering, a positive perspective–these are just some of the factors that contribute to healthy aging. Yet there’s more to growing old gracefully than that.
There are, of course, broad determinants of health that affect everyone, such as housing, income, and education. Some segments of the population are at a disadvantage compared to others. The prevalence of chronic diseases in older people is highest, for instance, in First Nations communities and in economically challenged groups. Seniors must also learn to combat ageism.
There are many simple things older people can do to keep their health in check. Moving the body is vital. Among the myriad benefits are reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, improved balance and coordination, and decreased risk of depression.
Canada’s Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living for Older Adults (available online at phac-aspc.gc.ca/pau-uap/paguide/older/index.html) suggests 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days. Easy ways to get started include stretching, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or carrying home the groceries. Muir emphasizes the importance of lifting weights to offset theloss of bone density that accompanies aging.
Eating well is paramount to older people’s well-being. Seniors require fewer calories but more nutrients than younger people. Poor nutrition can weaken their immune systems, exacerbate symptoms of chronic illness, cause dizziness, and worsen macular degeneration.
The BC Ministry of Health published Healthy Eating for Seniors, a nutritional guide that has recipes, facts on supplements, tips on how to eat well on a budget, and other information. It’s available at actnowbc.ca/EN/seniors/healthy_eating_for_seniors.
Muir says she watches what she eats and avoids fat, but she treats herself, too. “I love food, and I enjoy really nice wine. I don’t deny myself if I want a really good piece of cheese. Everything in moderation.”
Keep in mind that Martin and Acorn grew up eating true organic food. Pesticides weren’t widely used in food production until after World War II.
Clearly, healthy aging isn’t just about physical wellness. A lifelong process, it also encompasses mental, spiritual, emotional, and social well-being.
Social inclusion is a crucial but often neglected aspect of aging, says Tessa Graham, the former executive director of the BC Ministry of Health’s Healthy Children, Women, and Seniors and Injury Prevention Branch.
“It’s important to have strong social networks throughout your life. End of life is characterized by loss: loss of your job, your spouse, your friends. How do we reach seniors who are isolated?” asks Graham. “All levels of governments need to ask, how do communities support their neighbours? How can we get seniors more involved?”
Social exclusion can increase the risk of loneliness and poor health and even act as a predictor of death, according to the World Health Organization.
The 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey found that 64 percent of seniors with a strong sense of community perceived their health positively compared to 58 percent who said they felt less connected. Social support also improves seniors’ self-efficacy and coping skills.
Graham points to church and community groups as excellent ways for people to get involved with others. So are activities such as the group exercise classes that Martin takes.
For proof of how a physical fitness program can spin off into a social network, look to Fit Fellas of West Vancouver. Dozens of men work out in the morning at the West Vancouver Seniors’ Activity Centre, then go for coffee. They get together for day trips and the occasional pint of beer. The men’s camaraderie is obvious in one of their YouTube videos (youtube.com/watch?v=S34j0W66cf4). In the clip, they sing to the tune of the Oak Ridge Boys’ song “Elvira” on lines such as “Guts that bounce like jelly/Muscles weak and sore/We’ve had all kinds of ailments/And we’re waiting to get more.”
Many would agree that having a sense of humour goes a long way when it comes to aging well. So does a sense of independence.
Dr. Jane Barratt, secretary general of the Montreal-based International Federation on Ageing, says that quality of life centres on people’s ability to make their own decisions.
“It means having a level of health and function that enables people to do what they want,” Barratt explains. “The key word is choice. How do we support people to remain as independent as possible?”
The World Health Organization’s Global Age-friendly Cities project seeks to answer that question. With 35 cities involved–including Sherbrooke, Quebec; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Saanich, BC; and Portage la Prairie, Manitoba–the program aims to incorporate everything from accessible transportation systems to activities that encourage intergenerational participation. “Equally important as physical and social health and well-being,” Barratt adds, “is being recognized for who you are and being respected and loved. It’s about being a part of a society for all ages.”
For Martin, feeling good at 78 all boils down to the fact that he simply doesn’t feel old. “You still look out of the same eyes. My memory isn’t as good, my body isn’t as good, I can’t do everything I used to be able to do. But then I used to say that when I was 40.”
Simple Health Tips for Seniors
• Maintain a positive outlook.
• Keep moving.
• Stay connected.
• Exercise your brain.
• Consume more nutrients than calories.