The Healthy Aging Association® has spent the better part of two decades promoting September as Healthy Aging Month, and they have exactly the right idea on how to go about it. Rather than focus on just the most obvious ideas of what ‘healthy’ means, the HAA asks us to think about what we can do to support our honored elders in their physical, mental, social, and financial well-being. With that in mind, here is how they suggest the well-being of our aging loved ones should be pursued.
Happy and Healthy?
One of the most prominent misconceptions about health in U.S. culture is that good health comes as a result of being happy. While it is true that healthy people tend to be happier and happy people tend to be healthier, the actuality is that both happiness and health are a result of two not-intuitively-related factors; mastery and connection. The single most significant factor in failing health (be it physical, mental, social, or financial) is a feeling of pointlessness…and being happy does not preclude feeling pointless.
After the kids are gone and retirement has lost its shine, knowing why you should get dressed each morning can be surprisingly difficult. To help, let us turn to Japanese tradition of ikigai, or ‘purpose-finding,’ which focuses on the understanding that humans find value in mastering skills.
Encourage your honored elder to find something they enjoy for its own sake; like painting, singing, teaching, gardening, or even building Lego cities. Give them the resources they need to get into it, not just as a time sink, but with the goal of excelling at it. Do not push them into something they are not interested in, but if interest sparks, support them in mastering their new skill as best you can.
Carolyn Worthington, founder of the Healthy Aging Association®, had this to say on the subject:
Who says you have to do something related to what you studied in school? Who says you can’t become an entrepreneur, start your own home business later in life, test your physical prowess, or do something wildly different from anything you’ve done before? Only that person you see in the mirror!
Biologists have noticed for decades that the strongest predictor of the size of a mammal’s neocortex (the part of the brain that gives us the ability to think) is the size of its social group. Humans have, far and away, the largest neocortex (in proportion to our body size) of any animal. We are literally born and bred to be social, and it is our social nature that led us to dominance over the natural world; this has been going on ever since we started forming hunting groups, living in stable campsites, and burying our dead thousands of years ago.
The other significant path toward finding purpose in old age is by being connected. In many ways, this is intuitively obvious to our honored elders; how often has your aging mother lamented that you never call, or your father bemoan the fact that his buddies never get together for cribbage since Jim passed away? Unfortunately, many of our seniors feel unable to make the important step of finding new friends to connect with.
One thing we can do to help is to take the first step for them. Here are some unorthodox but surprisingly successful methods of finding a social group for your aging loved one:
- Call your local community college and find out of seniors can audit classes for free.
- Stop by the local senior center and ask for a schedule of clubs, classes, and events.
- Ask around about places that are looking for volunteers and would welcome senior assistance.
- If your honored elder is a member of a religious faith, look for an organization within that faith that they can join and would feel comfortable in.
- When all else fails, Meetup.com can be effective (at least in urban and suburban areas) at finding like-minded folks to, well, meet up with and get to know. Similar sites like EventBrite.com, and for more rural areas NextDoor.com, can work if you are not successful with Meetup.com.
It might take a few tries for a group to really click, but once it happens, you will notice the difference right away. Then your job is to keep up enough that when your aging loved one talks about their new friends, you can follow along and be enthusiastic with them.
Are mastery and connection the only things needed to live a healthy life? No, of course not; you still need money and the necessities that come with it, like food and clothes. But provided your material needs are met, mastery and connection are the keys to moving beyond just blindly surviving each day, and actually living a full and healthy life.