Five tips for aging better and healthier

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Fifteen years ago, then about 50, I started keeping my list of “stupid things I won’t do when I get old.” Year by year that list got longer and longer as I chronicled all the things my parents were doing wrong (in my humble opinion). I pledged never to do any of them.

I was going to age smarter, and with more grace.

As the years went by, my parents’ unwillingness to acknowledge their diminished physical and mental state was top of my list. My father knew how dangerous falls could be because both of his parents (my grandparents) died as a result of complications from spills, stumbles and tumbles. Yet Dad refused a cane until he needed a walker. Then he refused the walker. He fell so often I lost count. Then came the day he fell hard, breaking four ribs, which landed him in the ICU.

Two weeks later, my siblings and I said goodbye to him as he lay dying at home.

I was 59 at the time. Even having witnessed my father’s (and grandfather’s) fatal intransigence, I didn’t feel the need to take my own advice. Like them, I had equal measures of denial and hubris. Old was for tomorrow; old was for other people.

Within months of turning 60, however, I did my first really stupid thing. I needed a book from a high shelf, but did I go get the stepladder? Nope. In my stocking feet, I climbed onto the desk instead. With one foot on there and the other on a chair, I still couldn’t reach it.

When I tried to jump up and snag it, I finally heard a voice in my head berating me for the “stupid thing” I was doing. I got down from my precarious perch and fetched the stepladder. Book retrieved. No falls — at least not yet.

In that moment, jumping up and down like a Jack Russell terrier, I asked myself, “Am I becoming my father?” I remembered him in his final decade: defiant, in denial and scared of losing his independence. And I had a revelation: Aging smarter is not so easy.

We’ve all heard that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” As a friend who also saw parents struggling with new deficits and fears reminded me, “no matter how much we tell ourselves we won’t be like our parents, no matter how hard and fast we run in the other direction, we become them.”

That terrified me. But what could I do differently?

Many of my generation — boomers — have come to equate aging with illness, loneliness and disability. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As Deborah Carr, a sociologist, wrote in her 2023 book, “Aging in America,” powerful economic, technological and cultural changes in recent decades mean that older adults in 2050 will be leading very different lives than those who are retirement-age today.

I found that my list of stupid things I wouldn’t do was really a means to create pledges to myself for how to age smarter.

By writing them down I hoped to hold myself accountable; by sharing them I hoped others might come to a greater awareness of what we think old is and how we can make new and better choices. Studies have shown that health pledges may encourage people to make the small, easier steps that can lead to significant improvements in health.

Once someone starts thinking of themselves as falling apart, ill or old, it’s easy to fall into the trap of negative self-expectations. The World Health Organization reports that older adults subject to ageism live on average 7.5 years less than people with positive views about getting older.

Becca Levy, a professor of public health and psychology at Yale and author of “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live,” wrote, “In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more-negative perceptions; they were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster and they even lived longer.”

So unlike my parents, I’m making an effort to better appreciate the gifts of age and have started taking small steps in an effort to live better.

  • Use hearing aids when needed. I’ve had my hearing checked; while it’s not perfect, my audiologist says I’m good for at least a few years. By contrast my dad avoided getting help for his hearing, which left him isolated. I’m determined to get hearing aids when I need them, and knowing me, I’ll probably write about that. No stigma.
  • Stay socially engaged. My parents’ social world shrank as they aged. I’ve been expanding mine, especially to include younger people. Studies show that intergenerational friendships provide value to both younger and older, with positive impacts on health and psychological well-being.
  • Keep moving. Health experts are clear that staying active is important as you age. While I’m able, that’s what I’m doing, unlike my mom who became increasingly sedentary and lonely. I’ve returned to the dance floor now that we can swing and sweat together again as the pandemic wanes. Not only is there an endorphin high, but as Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Joy of Movement,” wrote, “collective action reminds us what we are part of, and moving in, community reminds us where we belong.”
  • Make an effort to smile. I smile a lot at those I know (even my dog) and those I don’t because smiling spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing dopamine and serotonin (which respectively increase happiness and decrease stress).
  • Don’t climb on things. Ask for help when something is out of reach. If your balance becomes an issue, use a cane or walker. Don’t let denial lead you to unwise choices. And fall-proof your home — get rid of area rugs and obstacles.

All this is not easy and takes practice. In the end I felt my parents did as much as they could. But I remember what Andrew Weil, author of “Healthy Aging,” has argued: “We are not hostages to our fate,” meaning people can make smarter choices that will improve their later years.

I’ve actually scribbled that sentence on a blue Post-it and stuck it on my bathroom mirror for me to take stock of every morning — while I brush my teeth, first on only the left foot, and then the right, which helps with balance. I want to end my family legacy of fatal falls. Wish me luck.

Steven Petrow, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is author of the book “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Older: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong.”

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