A New Paradigm for Aging

I believe that we need to create a new attitude toward aging in the United States. We do not do senior citizens a favor by attempting to make life easier for them. Many of the health and mobility problems experienced as we age are caused from immobility and in our society we make it easy to be immobile. The idea of taking it easy as we get older should be discarded and replaced with a new outlook.
I spoke recently with a 30-year-old acquaintance and told her that I taught resistance training classes for senior citizens. She said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. You can have them play games and pretend to be animals.” When I replied that we did squats and shoulder presses just like she does at the gym, her eyes opened wide in disbelief.

Why does our society assume that when we become “senior citizens” we should be treated like children? Her attitude is what’s wrong with the general public’s beliefs about aging.

At a meeting recently I heard a representative of AARP describe in glowing terms how AARP is helping seniors by giving them items to make their lives easier—equipment like grab bars in the bathtub. I am not saying that this is a bad idea. Grab bars in the bathtub are an excellent idea. Probably all bathtubs should have them because seniors have no monopoly on slipping in the tub.

But I have a problem dealing with the concept that we should make life easier for senior citizens as they age. And I am preaching to anyone who will listen that we need to rethink our attitude toward aging.

In their book, Biomarkers, William J. Evans and Irwin Rosenberg say, “…when you arrive at age 55 or 60, it is not time to put your feet up and take it easy for the rest of your life. In truth, at no time during your lifetime is putting your feet up and resting for extended periods of time a good idea.” Dr. Walter M. Bortz II, who studied the deleterious effects of bed rest, came to the conclusion that “…at least a portion of the changes that are commonly attributed to aging are, in reality, caused by immobility. As such, they’re subject to correction by mobility—meaning activity and exercise.”

Not being able to take care of themselves is one of the biggest fears of the elderly. I heard recently from a friend that his 87-year-old mother had fallen while she was in her yard alone. She was unable to get up and had to lie there for several hours until someone came along to help her.

What if we didn’t encourage seniors to move to homes with no stairs? What if there were more physical events designed specifically for older people? What if there were more strengthening classes available to help seniors regain and retain strength and independence?

What if seniors in assisted living homes weren’t treated like children and told to sit in chairs and exercise by placing their hands on their heads and then on their shoulders and back again? What if they were asked to exercise as do younger people—by lifting weights for upper body and doing squats for lower body strength?

What if—instead of building chairs that lift seniors to a standing position— they learn to exercise so their leg muscles are strong enough to lift them onto their feet? Why not work on keeping seniors strong as they age--so they will remain independent and not need the aids that are so accepted in our society? Why don’t we attempt to change the mind set that has produced this problem?

The answer for most of us is that we don’t know any better. We are not aware that we can choose to remain independent as we age because we have been told all our lives that we should take it easy as we grow older.

To illustrate how deeply embedded is the idea that we should slow down as we get older, here are a few quotes from a book published a few years ago about preparing for being unable to live independently as you age.

”...Eliminate the need for strenuous physical exertion where possible, especially the need to climb stairs…”
“…A dining table in the kitchen saves walking and reduces fatigue.…”
“…meal preparation… can also be tiring…. Guarding against overexertion requires attention to the following guidelines:
“…Reduce physical exertion: Keep bending, lifting, and reaching to a minimum. Replace heavy iron cookware with lighter weight …pots and pans.”

This mind set enables seniors to progressively become weaker as the muscles in their arms and legs atrophy. Why not encourage seniors to climb stairs as long as they are able? Why not suggest that lifting heavy pans can help keep your arm muscles strong? Why not stress that being active actually causes you to have more energy—not the opposite?

The truth is that the more you exercise, the more energy you will have. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way our bodies were designed. I see it every day in the senior strength classes I teach. Every student I have ever had states that they have more energy when they work out regularly.

Of course, some seniors have diseases such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, and that is a different story. They are truly not able to remain independent. However, they should exercise as much as they are able. Exercise can help delay the onset and progression of many diseases.

My mother is 96 years old and still lives alone in her own home. She’s an amazing lady who gets around without a cane or walker. When I visit her, I find myself wanting to wait on her, to go get items that she needs, and in general, to take care of her so that she never needs to get up from her chair.

This makes no sense at all. We need to give up “enabling” seniors to become more and more dependent. Tufts University in Boston has done much research into the aging process. They have proven that even 90-year-olds can become stronger just by doing resistance training. Muscles do not forget how to be strong, they atrophy because they are not used.

Over and over in my classes I watch people in their seventies and eighties become stronger. I watch them become more independent and self-sufficient. I see their self-esteem increase as they begin to realize that they are not doomed to a continuous spiral of becoming weaker and weaker with every passing day.

Class participants tell me that they can get in and out of the car easier, that going up stairs is easier, that the arthritis is their knees is gone, that the creaky shoulder is without pain. And most of all they tell me that they feel better and have more energy. They work at exercising. They come to class barely able to lift three-pound weights. In only a few weeks, they move up to five pounds. Then they laugh at how three pounds used to feel heavy. They move up to eight pound weights for some of the exercises. They feel better about themselves. I love hearing their stories about how strength training has changed their lives.

Encourage your loved ones to remain independent, to get up and move around their homes, to take care of themselves. If you have a parent living with you, encourage him or her to be self-sufficient. Don’t try to alter the living space so they hardly need to move. Make sure they understand that they need to be active.

If you are a health care provider, encourage your patients or residents to do things for themselves, to walk, to participate in exercise classes, to do anything that will cause them to move and stretch. Investigate how strength exercise might be included in the lives of those for whom you are responsible.

If you are a senior, get moving and get lifting. Climb up and down stairs, carry bags of groceries, work in the garden—make your body work. Get involved in a exercise program or set up one of your own. Include walking, stretching and strength training for a complete program. If you don’t use your muscles, you will lose them.

Let’s all work to change our attitude toward aging. No longer let us sit and rock while our muscles atrophy. We can work together to help all of us learn how keep strong and independent for as long as we live.

Phyllis Rogers is a Certified Fitness Trainer and Specialist in Fitness for Older Adults. She is author of "Over 40 & Gettin' Stronger" which contains an easy to learn strength workout which uses only dumbbells and can be done at home. She has taught more than 1200 strength classes for older adults Her web site is http://www.StrongOver40.com. She can be reached at fitness9@mindspring.com.

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