September is Healthy Aging Month, which we observe to celebrate the positive aspects of growing older. Most of us want to age well and live a long life. And that’s increasingly possible: Experts now say that there’s a lot we can do to boost our longevity and feel good, too. Research shows that making positive lifestyle choices at any age can make a big difference in our health.
So what are some of the steps you or your loved ones can do to take charge of your well-being? We sat down with two of our own experts: Christine Sanders, Chief Operating Officer, and Nora O’Brien, DPT, Executive Director of Willow Towers Assisted Living and Willow Gardens Memory Care, who oversee the day-to-day operation, programs, and activities in their respective care communities. They share strategies and advice on growing older while living life to the fullest.
- Keep your mind sharp: “A core philosophy of life on our campus is to keep challenging our brains to learn new things, which serves as a form of mental exercise,” says O’Brien. Assisted living residents, for example, have the opportunity to take part in current event discussions that foster healthy debates as well as ongoing historical lectures with visiting professors. Brain games, cooking classes, and puzzles are employed across campus to challenge and engage the memory for brain health.
- Sit less, move more: “There’s a huge range of fitness programs that are offered on our campus that not only encourage the residents to move more but also to help manage stress, improve cognition, promote balance and flexibility and foster socialization,” explains Sanders. Tai Chi, yoga, meditation, chair Zumba, dance and movement therapy, stretching with therabands, and even pool noodle “volleyball” are among the activities available to residents. “Simply going for a walk with your loved one is a great way to spend time together and incorporate low-impact activity,” adds Sanders.
- Make healthy food choices: United Hebrew residents are fortunate to have dedicated chefs who meticulously prepare menus that are healthy, freshly made, accommodate dietary requirements due to medical conditions, and incorporate personal preferences whenever possible. Residents also eat fresh fruit and vegetables cultivated from campus gardens and are continually reminded to drink water throughout the day. Says O’Brien, “Hydration is key. Staying hydrated wards off UTIs and sepsis and facilitates healthy digestion and oral health.” Water is provided at every activity, mealtime, and resident event. If you’re preparing meals for older adults at home, choose foods that are high in fiber and include healthy fats, plant-based foods, and foods that are minimally-processed, she says.
- Get social! Choosing activities that challenge your mind and also help to make new social connections are so important later in life, says Sanders. “Something as simple as learning a new card game keeps your brain active, and it’s fun. Take the opportunity to try new things — pick up a paintbrush, learn a new dance step, make a new friend or even pursue a romantic relationship.” Sanders pointed out that finding new ways to engage with the world helps their residents stave off loneliness and maintain a zest for life.
- And….breathe. Chronic stress has been associated with accelerated aging, and can contribute to an increased risk of disease and many health issues. Therefore, managing stress is crucial to our overall health with benefits that trickle down to our physical and emotional being, notes O’Brien. “When it comes to lowering stress, physical fitness plays a role. Mindfulness and meditation also help. Faith-based services of any denomination may offer comfort no matter your religious orientation. For example, some of our Christian residents attend services for the Jewish holidays; what matters is slowing down and taking time to reflect.”
One thing is certain: we have more control over how we age than previously thought. Many studies have shown that lifestyle choices do make a difference, O’Brien and Sanders note: “Taking care of our bodies and our relationships will help us live longer and be happier.”