Vitality In Aging Parents: Who Has It And Who Doesn’t?
You probably know some lively, spirited older people and plenty of others who seem listless and bored with life. What makes the difference? Mental health basics, together with attending to physical health surely contribute to how we age and to our vitality.
Some folks who seek advice at AgingParents.com describe their elders as doing reasonably well. The elder is not the source of the problems. The adult children’s difficulties in those situations are more with their other siblings. Family fights are sadly common among adult kids who have to care for and sometimes pay for care for their aging loved ones. For others, the distress created in the family is from their parents themselves. A common complaint is that the aging parent is depressed, sleeps excessively and doesn’t want to go anywhere nor do anything. They describe them as “half dead” or other ways suggesting zero enthusiasm for anything.
What makes vitality, or a feeling of aliveness? How can two people of the same age be so different in how they age? From what we observe directly and see in gerontological literature, it is a combination of things in one’s personality and habits. Most elders have been through a lot. One remarkable 95 year old we encountered named Al had served in the military in WWII, had contracted malaria, was near death and had survived. He had resilience, a quality that seems to be in common among those with vitality in old age. He had lived through the loss of his wife and a daughter. His business was threatened and he had to move out of the U.S. for years. He had suffered a long list of troubles, yet he remained enthusiastic about life to the end. This gentleman had a habit of determination to adapt to whatever hit him next. It was perhaps a matter of will. He could have given up many times but he refused to be defeated in spirit. That’s how we define resilience.
Then there are the daily life habits that contribute to how we age. We can call them vitality builders. Al was a regular exerciser. He belonged to a gym and went several times a week for a workout. This was not some Olympic-worthy routine. Rather, it was simply regular basic exercise that he stuck to doing until shortly before his passing. One could describe it as moderate exertion. It took self-discipline and in his later years, the help of a caregiver who transported him to the gym and stood by as he did his routine.
He ate mindfully, mostly organic foods, healthy choices, not much at all in the way of junk. He maintained a reasonable weight, not skinny but within what a doctor would call normal range. That included a little round tummy. He socialized often, a key contributor to his resilience. Contact with friends for lunch every week kept him going for a significant part of his retirement years. He loved to engage in conversation. The connections he made with others on a regular basis undoubtedly contributed to his vitality. Music is important too, as enjoyment, and distraction from stress.
What if your aging parents do none of the things Al did as he reached his 90s, still full of life? Is it too late in one’s 70s or 80s? It’s never too late to improve. Perhaps encouraging an aging parent to start with just one daily habit can build some momentum. A walk every day or chair exercises work for some folks. You don’t have to be able to walk independently to get healthier either. Al needed a walker to get to his exercise machines but he went, regardless. And the social aspect of Al’s life, which we observed, is a crucial part of resilience. We need that connection to other people often.
If your aging loved one is sleeping what seems like way too much and declines all efforts to do things with you, that may be because of depression. This mental health issue is overlooked much too often in aging adults. Doctors can be dismissive, saying “you’re just getting old”. I beg to differ. Al is one of my favorite examples of “just getting old”. He did this very well.
If excessive sleep and protracted unwillingness to move are what you’re seeing, encourage your aging parent to speak to her or his doctor to be evaluated for depression. If it’s there encourage your loved one to get treatment for it. Medications can work very well with depression in older adults. These medications can take a couple of weeks to see the results but the wait is worth it.
One thing adult children can do to help aging parents lacking in vitality is to plan social activities with them. Anyone who has gotten into the habit of way too much TV and staying in the house all the time might need a nudge or two to change that. Meeting your elder for coffee, going with him or her to a class at the nearest senior center and attending any event your elder loved one would enjoy are all ways a family can contribute. Advocate for listening to music, his or her favorite kind. We like to see more engagement and less isolation.
Here’s hoping for greater vitality in all our elders, and ourselves one step at a time.
If you suspect that your aging parent is depressed, a matter often overlooked by doctors who are busy treating other conditions, get professional information from a licensed psychologist at AgingParents.com. Information is power when you implement it. Call 866-962-4464.
By Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN-Attorney, AgingParents.com