Staying involved in life

Lighthouse column
By: Angela Ponivas Special to The News Messenger
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Recently, my father-in-law fell down in his home and needed to go into the hospital for a few days. As I visited him, I was in a unit of the hospital that had many elderly people who were categorized as “high risk of falling.” The experience prompted me to want to build physical strength, realizing how much strength helps to maintain physical balance. The experience also prompted me to research “successful aging” suggestions. I discovered that the UCLA School of Medicine interviewed and studied 1,200 adults between the ages of 70 and 99. Their results indicated that successful aging could be defined as: 1) a high level of engagement with life. 2) low risk of disease. 3) high physical and cognitive functioning. Further, UCLA researchers found that socialization and moderate physical activity helped maintain a high level of cognitive functioning not only among their healthy subjects but also among those subjects with chronic physical ailments. In Eastern cultures such as China, Japan, Thailand, Tibet and Okinawa, there are a disproportionately high percentage of healthy, active elderly. In their society, the elderly are respected for their wisdom and experience, often consulted regarding important personal matters, and expected to stay active and productive members of society as long as possible. There is no mandatory retirement age. It appears that when aging is considered in the context of experience gained and knowledge to pass on, the elderly do better. Staying involved with life is at the heart of successful aging. And while for many individuals, this involvement equates to an active social life, research suggests that an active pursuit of life-long learning is another key element in staying involved. Retirement and the years after provide an opportunity to pursue college courses — often available at no or minimal cost — for the elderly. Courses in art, history, science and literature are all there for the asking. Staying involved with life also means contributing to life in meaningful ways. i.e. mentoring and doing volunteer work (the possibilities are endless). For those of us who aren’t quite there yet — as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Old age is l5 years older than I am” — it is our responsibility to make sure that people still have the opportunity to contribute as they age. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychology notes that, “according to seniors,” successful aging involves: a. active participation in a variety of interesting and fulfilling social and intellectual activities b. developing more close friendships c. meaningful and positive interactions with family d. as much independence as possible. In conclusion, I found out that to age with grace and dignity, the following is recommended: * Begin to develop a lifestyle that is happy and fulfilling. See aging as simply an opportunity to devote more time to that lifestyle. * Remember that successful aging is based on life-long learning. Actively pursue interests. * Take college courses; go on elder hostel trips; read and watch educational TV. * Keep contributing. Don’t allow anyone to tell you you’re too old to help others or your community. Stay reasonably active. If sports and exercise aren’t your thing, that’s OK but at least go for a walk, garden, wash your car, play golf. Don’t let your body rust. * Stay involved with others. Meet new people. Join a club that interests you. If you’ve always been something of a loner, that’s OK too, but again, consider what you can do to help others. Life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, and a sense of having value and importance to others, are characteristics of those who age with grace. If you are in mid-life or older, there is no time like the present to begin constructing a lifestyle and quality of life that you can continue as long as possible. Your body will change but strive to keep active and know that there is always something to learn, someone to help and a life to live. The goal is to die living! Angela Ponivas is the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center’s executive director. Her phone is 645-3300; address is 427 A St., Suite 400; and Web site is