When we were young we had the tendency to ignore the fact that if we live long enough we would get old. I must admit I was one of those who notoriously lived life by burning the candle at both ends early in my career, never thinking of the accumulative effect it would have in my retirement years. Luckily, however, I came to the stark realization early in middle age that I would be burnt out and would have nothing left to retire to if I continued at this pace. Consequently, I took measures to live a less stressful life and focussed more on lifestyle and health habits. Now that I’m retired, I’m sure glad I did.
In the midst of lesson planning, classroom instruction, professional development, etc., we rarely think of health as an investment. But bad health habits wrongly practised early in a teacher’s career can result in major health and emotional problems later in life.
A study by Dr. Eric Caine revealed some rather interesting observations about elderly people. In a press release, he stated, “Suicide rates are highest among the elderly and the situation appears to be getting worse. Depression is a primary factor in these deaths. Much of the depression occurs because of multiple small problems—medical and otherwise—exaggerated in the minds of an individual. People become ‘demoralized and discouraged’ by their declining physical abilities and assorted nagging problems, but the depression these difficulties generate is far more serious than whatever brought it on.” (International Psychogeriatric Association, Aug. 19, 2003).
That’s a pretty sobering statement for us 50 plus people. But it doesn’t have to be this way for any individual. We do not have to fear getting old and depressed.
General myths have prevailed that convince us that as we get older there are certain inevitable maladies that come with aging. However, John Rowe, M.D. and Robert Kahn, Ph.D, in their book Successful Aging, shot down five myths about aging.
The first myth is “To be old is to be sick.” Yes, the aging body is more prone to ailments, but the study reveals that as people age they are more likely to do it in a state of wellness rather than being ill. It is absolutely false to believe that just because you’re getting older, you can’t remain healthy.
The second myth is based on the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is simply not true. Scientists have come to understand that the brain works a lot like a muscle—the more we use it, the better it functions. Age should never keep us from using our mental faculties. In fact, in this regard, the saying is very true: “Use it or lose it.”
The third myth is described as “if you don’t take care of yourself when you are young it’s too late to start when you’re old.” Replacing bad habits with good habits allows the body to begin the process of mending at any time in one’s life—the earlier the better, of course. While there is no fountain of youth, a healthy lifestyle in any phase of life is the best prescription for anti-aging.
A fourth myth is that longevity is determined by heredity, While genes are a factor, no doubt, they play much less of a role than the choices we make. Healthy living practices are far more important to the success of the aging process. Rowe’s and Khan’s research illustrates that the importance of genetics as a health factor shrinks as one grows older, while lifestyle habits become more influential.
The last myth they busted was the saying “The lights may be on, but the voltage is low.” This false myth leads society to believe that the elderly suffer from inadequate mental and physical abilities. Such need not be the case. Scientists have come to understand that senility does not come with old age; it comes from poor health practices.
Sooner or later we’re all going to get old. We might as well enjoy the ride and learn how to enjoy those well-earned years. After all, the question of how old you are is not as important as how healthy you are. Although we can’t control the ravaging of time, we can control our own health habits.
As a starting point we can we can stay active physically and mentally, eat a well-balanced diet, exercise daily and get plenty of rest.
Another key factor is to be current and up-to-date on health issues and lifestyles. Health fads come and go but if we stick to sound, time-proven health practices backed up by solid research then we should at least maintain a reasonably healthy life into old age.
Travelling, hobbies and having good social and family connections are important. Take advantage of these opportunities. Also, having a positive outlook is extremely important, and it is the area over which we have most control. One cause of discouragement and depression at any age is the loss of self worth. In our retirement years it can be more devastating, because many begin to feel they are no longer needed. That is simply not true! Those feelings can be overcome by concentrating on helping others and practising our faith and values more.
If you are retired or planning to retire soon, another way to begin is by not focussing on the past when your old job defined you, but look forward to the future by participating in meaningful activities, meeting people, making friends and volunteering your services. A purpose driven life gives you many reasons to get up in the morning.
Make that commitment today and prove to yourself that indeed you really can improve with age and become that healthy retiree you were meant to be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hector M. Earle
Hector M. Earle is a recently retired teacher/ principal and lives in Stoneville, NL.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Apr/May 2014 issue.