We’re getting older-as individuals and as a population. One of every eight
people in the United States is 65 or older. That’s about the same rate as Kentucky,
where the over-65 crowd has grown 4.8 percent since 1990.
But misunderstandings about aging are greater than the number of older
Kentuckians, especially when it comes to health and well-being.
“Society has many misconceptions about aging,” says Dr. James O’Brien,
a geriatrician (a physician specializing in aging) and professor at the University
of Louisville School of Medicine. “Older people have a lot of misconceptions
about aging. For example, our society believes that memory declines as people
get older, and that this is a normal part of aging. That is not true. Usually
when memory declines, it is a sign of an underlying medical condition. Yet an
older woman may see a memory decline in her husband, think that is a normal
part of aging, and not take him to a physician for it.”
Many chronic diseases do tend to cluster in old age, says O’Brien, who
cites heart disease, stroke, and malignancies as examples. Still, he says these
are potentially treatable conditions where, in many instances, a reasonable
quality of life can be restored.
So don’t write off health problems as just a natural result of growing
older. And, says O’Brien, older people have much more control over their health
than they might think.
“There are genetic factors that can influence our longevity,” he says.
“There is also a risk factor for diseases that could prematurely end our lives
or render us more disabled during old age, but most authorities believe that
in terms of longevity, genetics accounts for only 20 to 30 percent of the likelihood
of achieving health into 80s and 90s. Much of the risk is personal, environmental,
Following are some tips on getting healthy, staying healthy, and helping
aging parents do the same. It’s sound advice regardless of how many candles
are on your birthday cake.
Helping your parents
“The challenge for the adult children of aging parents is to balance
autonomy with safety,” says Dr. James O’Brien. “It is important that elderly
parents be encouraged to function at the highest level possible. Adult children
must try not to make them (parents) dependent by taking responsibilities away
Here are four of O’Brien’s tips for helping parents as they get older.
Encourage healthy living
Acknowledge that it is never too late to engage in healthy living.
“Many older adults have grown up in an environment where perhaps diets were
less healthy and exercise was not that important,” O’Brien says. “Smoking was
an activity a lot of adults engaged in. Even if they are older, it is not too
late to stop smoking or begin exercising. Encourage them to do that.”
A comfortable relationship between parents and adult children can also
have a significant effect, according to the physician.
“Begin by loving them in your heart,” he says. “Have regular contact with them,
and develop a comfortable relationship where there is enough openness for people
to express feelings. If you notice any decline in their ability to do things,
that should be a concern. Don’t just chalk it up to getting older. Very often
there is something a physician can do.”
Ask Them for Help
Acknowledge and support their independence.
“Don’t just assume that what older parents need from children is help,” O’Brien
says, “but realize your parents may be in a position to give and support and
to be of assistance to others.”
Be Prepared for Change
“When the time comes and it is appropriate, help parents with considering
a change in their living environment, leaving their home and settling in where
there is more assistance and support. The really good news is that this industry
is exploding. There are all kinds of alternative living choices for older adults.”
In Kentucky, the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) has
started a new program that will be developing certifications for assisted-living
facilities, according to AARP regional representative Laurel True, who is based
in Shelbyville. The organization already has a regular program in which volunteers
visit nursing homes and serve as advocates for residents.
Nine Basics for Aging Successfully
Dr. Nancy Stiles, a geriatrician and associate professor of medicine
at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, suggests that the most simple,
basic steps can be the most successful ones for long, healthy living. Here are
nine of the biggies:
1. Build your own food pyramid
“Eat healthy” sounds like familiar advice, but there are surprises. While
the basic nutritional guidelines found in the USDA’s food pyramid are right
for most people, Stiles recommends an individualized nutrition plan developed
by a geriatrician or dietitian.
“As you get older, you may have underlying medical conditions that will
do better if you select different foods,” Stiles says. “For example, we have
been taught to eat a lot of fiber, but some people may have a medical condition
that causes them to lose their appetite. Although fiber is generally good, it
is also very filling, and a lot of fiber may not be good for someone with a
The same with water. Stiles says the general recommendation to drink
eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day could be too much for someone on certain
medications that make it difficult for the body to maintain the proper chemical
2. Be careful
Don’t do high-risk things. For example, invest in a solid stepstool for
the kitchen instead of climbing on the counter to get items out of reach. Hold
onto the rail when going down steps. Young people fall doing these same things,
Stiles notes, but a broken bone can be more incapacitating as we get older.
3. Be an activist for your health
Get a cancer screening. The age at which this needs to be done will vary
with your family history, so check with your primary care physician. Also, have
your height and weight checked, and maintain the proper body weight. Stiles
further recommends a blood test to determine if you have adequate protein in
“As people get older, there is a tendency not to get enough protein,”
she says. Our society focuses on salt and cholesterol, but for older adults,
not getting enough protein may be far more devastating. Although society’s perception
of red meat is bad, nutritionally it is one of the best sources for zinc. One-third
of all older people have a low blood level of zinc, many because they stopped
eating red meat.
4. Minimize medications
The fewer the better is the rule of thumb, but if your physician cannot
treat a condition without the medicine, then you need to be taking the medicine,
according to Stiles.
“Some conditions can be treated without medicine. For example, certain
types of pain can be treated with heat therapy, massage, or an ointment with
medicine in it that doesn’t get in the system as much.
“Insomnia is another problem often treated with medication, but even
sleep experts try to avoid medications because they can have significant side
effects. If you can avoid taking medicine and treat the condition adequately,
you may be better off without it.
“All of this should be done in active concert with your primary care
physician. I don’t want to give the impression that people should stop taking
their blood pressure medicine.”
5. Drive safely
Know the weather and driving conditions on the road to avoid driving in inclement
weather. Also check out the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP)
website for more tips on driving safely: http://www.aarp.org.
6. Work on your attitude
If you are depressed, do something about it. Depression in older
people doesn’t always look the way you think it would. They may be smiling,
but they don’t feel like getting out with friends, and are not sleeping as well.
These can be signs of depression.
7. Keep active
Use it or lose it, but have fun using it.
“When some people hear the word exercise, they think of 50 sit-ups,”
Stiles says. “That is the kind of boring routine that most people don’t maintain.
Then they feel like an exercise failure. Instead, look at what you enjoy doing
now and find a way to incorporate additional physical activity.
“Research has shown if you exercise with someone else, and if you do
it in the morning, you’re more likely to stick with it. And you don’t need to
do it every day. Every other day is usually fine. Start walking with a friend
once a week. For instance, start walking with a neighbor on Saturday mornings
and do that until it is a routine part of your lifestyle.”
8. Be social
Remain socially active. People with friends fare better.
9. Challenge your mind
Intellectual activity is also very important. There is no reason why
many older adults cannot learn new information, develop new interests, or maintain
old interests. For a good example, study the life of Picasso.
Embrace life. Live it up!
Tailoring your home to your needs
The American Association of Retired Persons says that sometimes your
home can get to be like a favorite coat, noting that when a coat no longer fits,
we take it to the tailor for alterations. A few simple alterations inside and
outside our home can make it safer, more convenient, and more comfortable.
The AARP website (http://www.aarp.org)
includes a section on modifying your home. Here are a few of the many suggestions
Consider replacing older, two-handle faucets in your bathroom and kitchen
with easier-to-use single-lever type faucets that don’t require twisting. Also
consider an anti-scald hot-water valve on the bathtub. (Cost $60-$100)
Bathing can be a challenge to someone with a mobility problem. A seat
designed for the bath or shower can allow you to enjoy bathing in comfort. Seats
come in different sizes and style. Look for one that is strong, stable, and
has rubber caps on the legs to prevent slipping. A transfer bench or a bath
lift may be a better solution for someone with a more serious mobility problem.
Hallways and door frames are common barriers to someone who uses a wheelchair
or walker. Accessible hall and doorways should have at least 32″ clear width.
You should have adequate space on both sides of a door to maneuver while opening
and closing-at least 18-24″ on the door handle side. Ideally, thresholds should
be flush with the floor. A low threshold should be passable if it has beveled
There is a lot more good information available on tailoring your home.
A couple of free publications that may be particularly useful are:
Safety for Older Consumers
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Washington, D.C. 20207
The Doable Renewable Home: Making
Your Home Fit Your Needs (D12470)
AARP Fulfillment, Consumer Affairs
601 E Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20049