Aging Gracefully by Staying Active

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on August 18, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

I belong to the “Sandwich Generation”.  Not that I like to eat sandwiches, rather the term was coined to define a generation of adults who care for their aging parents while supporting their own children. I’m in my late forties, my kids range in age from 7 to 15, and my parents are in their early eighties.

According to the Pew Research Center, 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent. US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of older Americans aged 65 or older will double by the year 2030, to over 70 million. So I’m in good company it seems. The thing is, facing my parents’ advanced aging while I age myself is providing me with a day-to-day reminder of what is to come. As Bette Davis said, “Old age is no place for sissies!”

My parents did everything they were supposed to do. They ate lots of fruits and vegetables, were pretty active, never smoked, yet I still see them struggle with their aging bodies. Granted my dad has Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition that cannot, as far as we know, be prevented. My mother has some heart problems. But they don’t have diabetes or any of its complications, yet living into your eighties and nineties can be a challenge even in the best scenarios. It would be easy to just give up and “rest”. But that’s just it. When you’re older, research is showing, is just about the worst time to be sedentary, and the worst time not to make healthy choices. You can significantly increase your well-being, agility, balance, memory/cognition, energy and independence when you continue to eat well, and exercise.

Our community with its familial cultural influences from Mexico respects the elderly more than many other regions of the U.S. Folks don’t see being “sandwiched” as a burden, but more of a blessing, in which the wisdom and lessons of the abuelos can be shared with the young children of the family, gathering together regularly, sharing housing and childcare. It is common for several generations to live together under one roof.  But there are some misconceptions about what older folks need to stay healthy and enjoy a higher quality of life, with less medication, illness and disability and more vitality and independence.

There are several behaviors that are proven to improve quality and length of life, including eating more fruits and vegetables, not smoking and exercising regularly. But according to numerous studies, exercise is the silver bullet for a lot of health problems.

According to Alicia I. Arbaje, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins University, “For many people, exercise can do as much if not more good than the 5 to 10 medications they take every day. A lot of the symptoms that we associate with old age — such as weakness and loss of balance — are actually symptoms of inactivity, not age.”

So why don’t many of the older generation exercise? For some of the same reasons younger folks don’t do it. But there are also some specific myths associated with the elderly and physical activity:

  1. 1.      Exercise Myth: Exercise isn’t safe for someone my age — I don’t want to fall and break a hip.

In fact, studies show that exercise can reduce your chances of a fall. Exercise builds strength, balance, and agility. Exercises like tai chi may be especially helpful in improving balance. Worried about osteoporosis and weak bones? One of the best ways to strengthen them is with regular exercise.

  1. 2.      Exercise Myth: Since I’m older, I need to check with my doctor before I exercise.

If you have a serious medical condition or any unexplained symptoms or you haven’t had a physical in a long time, check with your doctor before you start exercising. Otherwise, go ahead. Just don’t overdo it at the beginning.

  1. 3.      Exercise Myth: I’m sick, so I shouldn’t exercise.

On the contrary, if you have a chronic health  problem — such as arthritis, diabetes, or heart disease — exercise is almost certainly a good idea. Check with a doctor first, but exercise will likely improve your condition.

Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents have so much to offer us. Their wisdom, experience and love should be valued and embraced. They deserve to be cared for, but that includes helping them find ways to be active and enjoy a quality life. Many of our elderly suffer from isolation, depression and loneliness and being active can help give them purpose, social connection and increased energy.

There are several good programs in our community sponsored by hospitals, churches and schools that provide affordable, appropriate exercise programs for the elderly—from water aerobics to tai chi. But even just getting out and walking at a park, or in the air-conditioned mall is a great option. Get grandpa out in the garden to teach you about plants, or turn on an oldie but goodie song at home and encourage grandma to show you some dance moves from her youth! Find effective ways to help encourage the older folks in your life to stay active, because at every age, Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).