Many studies have linked overall fitness and exercise to longer life spans and a better quality of life as we age. (See How to Facilitate Recreation and Activities for the Elderly)
However, through accident, disease or poor lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking, poor diet), many seniors cannot exercise as much as they would like or as much as is desirable (see FamilyDoctor.org, Exercise and Seniors).
Vital Role of Social & Productive Activities on Senior Life Spans
However, this does not leave these seniors out on a limb when comes to increasing their life spans and quality of life. Other factors, such as social and productive-creative activities can often make up for a lack of exercise. Thomas Glass, an assistant professor in Harvard University School of Public Health, found that engaging in “social” activities, such as going to the movies, theatre, sporting, sightseeing and traveling, or “productive” activities, such as regular employment, gardening, volunteer work, housework and shopping decreased senior mortality as much as fitness activity alone. (See: Population based study of social and productive activities as predictors of survival among elderly Americans, BMJ, 1999; 319:478).
While Chris Riddoch, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, suggest that Glass may have confounded the effects of social and productive activities with physical activities (for example, going out to see a film or gardening can involve “significant levels of incidental physical activity”), and there are clearly social benefits of physical activity, Glass and his colleagues nevertheless urge doctors, caregivers and assistant living facilities to encourage social and productive activities in their elderly patients. Says Dr. Glass: “Such activities can function as ‘powerful new interventions’ to promote the health and longevity of elderly patients.”
Take Away Messages from the Senior Social & Productive Activities BMJ Study
Can mindfulness training and mindfulness meditation improve cognitive and immune function by reducing stress in the elderly? Amber Court, an assisted living community located in New York and New Jersey, says all the research points to the conclusion that the elderly could indeed improve the quality of their life through mindfulness training:
“Practicing mindfulness can improve working memory, which is the basis for almost all higher cognitive functions. This is of special interest for the elderly and assisted living providers who work with them because it is the higher cognitive functions that decline with age.” (See: What Assisted Living Communities Should Know about Mindfulness).
Researchers have long known that deterioration of brain tissue and function in the cortical and sub-cortical areas is a major cause of memory problems and cognitive deficits in the older adult brain. Remarkably, however, neuropsychologists have recently shown that aerobic exercise improves cognitive and brain function by reversing the natural neural decay that occurs with age. Thus exercise is often recommended for improving cognitive functioning in the elderly.
Unfortunately, what also declines with age is the ability to engage in physical activity and exercise. In those cases where elderly individuals either cannot exercise or have greatly reduced physical mobility, Amber Court suggests that mindfulness training can be a great alternative.
You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.
– Woody Allen
How to live well, how to age well — those are the perennial questions of our time, or any time for that matter.
Today, however, as never before, the question of how to age well is starting to be answered:
“In 2003, researchers asked an elderly population in Manitoba Canada the following question: “what is your definition of successful aging?” Most people said successful aging involved: 1) being healthy, 2) staying physically fit, 3) maintaining mental health, and 4) staying socially active.
It turns out that it is exactly these four factors that play the greatest role in aging well. Research into aging populations has shown that not only are these 3 factors important for those of us in our later years but their absence early in our life increases the likelihood of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders later on.
The evidence is clear: staying healthy, staying physically fit, maintaining a positive and optimistic outlook, and staying socially active is important not only for successful aging but throughout the life span.” (How to Facilitate Recreation and Activities for the Elderly).
Assisted living communities of Amber Court says that what lies at the heart of “successful aging” is, quite simply, remaining active as one ages, but there’s the rub — as George Burns famously observed, “you know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” Most elderly can attest to the fact that staying active becomes a challenge as one grows older.
To address this challenge, Amber Court has come up with a set of guidelines for how to help the elderly stay active in assisted living communities (How to Facilitate Recreation and Activities for the Elderly):
- First, review a residence’s medical history from as many sources as possible (e.g., physicians, nurses, social workers, family and friends). This will allow them to compile all the possible physical or cognitive impairments that challenge self-care. After this assessment, assisted living practitioners will better be able to plan activities based on the resident’s strengths and weaknesses. Also, all planned activities and recreation should have realistic goals and clear expectations.
- Second, feedback is critical. Assisted living practitioners should not assume that everything will go according to plan. Instead, they should carefully measure and evaluate the performance of the resident and how well the activity suits the resident.
- Finally, as a resident grows older, their circumstances and bodies will change. Solutions that worked well in the past may not work today. Assisted living practitioners should periodically reassess the planned activities and recreation in terms of changes in weight, hygiene, overall enthusiasm and make changes accordingly.