Reflections on ‘Aging Well’

Oct 1, 2019 | Blog, Knowledge Exchange

October 2019 blog post written by Gail Hawley Knowles, R.N., BA, MHs 

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” – Bernard Shaw

I often hear and read about “aging well”, “aging in place”, and “successful aging”. Some researchers and popular literature define these terms differently. Definitions range from how happy and well you feel, to aging as a measurement of physical performance and cognitive function, to aging as a presence or absence of disease. There is also the concept of “usual” aging and some define successful aging as “disease free aging”. In other words, “aging at home” becomes defined as the ability to overcome a multitude of barriers to stay at home. There are new clinics in Ontario called “Aging Well Clinics”, with the goal of helping older people overcome barriers to illness associated with complicated medical conditions.

The World Health Organization defines healthy aging “as the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age”. That’s a great definition.

Many older adults, like me, consider healthy aging (or aging well or successful aging) as staying healthy, feeling your best and achieving specific goals or endeavors that are important to them.

You can slow the aging process if you do some simple things such as eating a well-balanced and healthy diet rich in whole grains, fish, legumes, and vegetables and by avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. If you have not exercised in the past, begin by exercising as much as you are able.  Stay connected socially by interacting regularly with others, especially friends and family. Challenge your brain by trying something new, playing games or learning a new language and try to keep your stress at a minimum.(1) 

Being productive and contributing to society in meaningful ways is an achievement many have reached and continue to do so in their later years. For example, think of some older adults you know who are in the workforce well past retirement. Staying in the workforce for some may be out of necessity and for others may be planned and purposeful because they feel they can continue to contribute knowledge and skills learned over the decades of their work life.

Despite this, some myths about aging continue to flourish. A few examples that I have heard are:

  • Myth: Old age equals senility or dementia.
  • Myth: The consequences of aging can’t be managed through lifestyle changes.
  • Myth: If you didn’t exercise in your 20s, 30s or 40s, it’s too late to start in your 50s, 60s or 70s.
  • Myth: Old age means constant sickness.
  • Myth: Sex ends in old age.
  • Myth: Getting older is depressing so expect to be depressed.

These myths are all incorrect as old age doesn’t always mean loss of cognition or being depressed or loss of sexual desire or activity.

Living with chronic disease(s) adds a layer of complexity to aging. Maintaining your physical health and mental wellness is an essential part of living well with chronic illness. There are many things an older person can do to maintain their well-being and they are similar to what people with no chronic issues would do with some exceptions. Some chronic diseases may need a diet adjustment to suit their condition and they may need to develop an exercise plan that accommodates specific limitations. An older person may need extra support to help cope with the physical, practical, emotional, and psychological aspects in the face of chronic disease in order to age well. (2)

I could not write this article without considering older adults who are poor, homeless or living pay cheque to pay cheque. Aging well for this population takes on a whole new meaning. Individuals living in poverty have a higher risk for most chronic diseases, mental illness, accidents, and trauma. Single, unattached older adults are the most financially vulnerable.(3) At-risk groups include indigenous people, people with disabilities, and immigrants. Poverty beyond income means not enough money for decent housing and food, which is an everyday struggle for people, young or old.

How can you help older adults living in poverty specifically? Ask questions to find out more about them, their living situation, and the financial benefits they currently receive. Ensure you and those you work with are aware of the resources in your area. Intervene by connecting these individuals to benefits, resources, and services.(4) When you encounter someone that you believe is living in poverty or on the edge of poverty, help by assisting them to obtain the subsidies for which they are entitled. Provide them with information of where food banks are and encourage them to attend clinics and services that can help them.

In summary, there is not one way to ‘age well’, but we can think about undertaking an exercise regime that suits our needs, eat well, socialize and help those living in poverty if you encounter them in your workplace and for yourself.

About the Author

A Registered Nurse, Gail held a leadership role in collaborating with other members of the CSAH team as the Manager of the Centre for Studies in Aging & Health. Gail coordinated, developed and facilitated the creation of linkages, partnerships and networks, resources (people, products and funds), and promotes effective change management processes related to aging and health.