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For Healthy Aging, Stay In Control

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In his latest book, Charles Duhigg, the author of bestsellers like The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and now, Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, describes how a group of seniors changed the daily routines they were supposed to follow in an assisted living facility. They "rebelled," if you will, against a regimen that was forced upon them -- not violently, of course, but in subversive ways nevertheless.

For instance, they would trade food items from their pre-set lunch trays among themselves according to their individual tastes and preferences. That may seem insignificant, but still, it gave them a sense of control they wouldn't have had by eating everything that was put in front of them.

Even more rewarding was the idea that they could rearrange the furniture in their cookie-cutter-style rooms to give them a more personal flair. When those actions were met with resistance from management, those rebellious spirits had ever more fun in doing as they pleased.

But getting a brief moment of satisfaction from some random acts of defiance wasn't the point of this story. The consequences were much more profound. As it turned out, experiencing a bit more control over their lives did the health and well-being of these people enormously good. They ate better, were more physically active, improved their mental capacities, and had overall fewer health problems -- just because of a little boost in self-confidence and determination. In other words, for these folks, control seemed to be a crucial element for healthy aging.

Loss of independence can happen suddenly through a catastrophic event or insidiously through natural decline.

Being able to make decisions for themselves signals people that they are still alive and that their lives still have meaning, Duhigg writes. Even deciding to stage a nursing home insurrection can become proof that someone is alive and can assert authority over his or her actions.

The changes that typically take place after retirement and as the natural aging process progresses are monumental, to put it mildly, says Dave Bernard, a California-based blogger who specializes in issues around retirement and aging.

When people stop working after decades of employment or in business, they exit abruptly from the world they knew. In many ways, they lose their identity, which they must regain in some other fashion, and they must reorient themselves. At the same time, they find themselves more isolated and have to rely on their own devices as they plan their days, organize their financial affairs, or try to take care of their health needs. They also gradually undergo physical and mental changes that don't work in their favor. As they get more fragile and vulnerable to health problems, they become increasingly dependent on others, something seniors dread the most among all effects of aging.

Loss of independence can happen suddenly through a catastrophic event or insidiously through natural decline. But most seniors don't prepare well for either. They believe they can stay in their home indefinitely and take care of themselves, even if that means to struggle on their own. But the vast majority does eventually end up requiring some help with daily chores like cooking, cleaning, shopping, or simply getting out of the house.

Thankfully, there is assistance available that enables people to have both, remaining reasonably independent and being cared for to the extent it is needed. Organizations like the National Aging in Place Council and countless other programs try to enable their clientele to continue the lifestyle they are used to and also get support like adult day care services, home remodeling, or financial advice.

Of course, the quality of life at old age depends largely on the personal choices an individual makes. The best care is to take proactive steps towards health aging. And for this, it is never too early and never too late.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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