By Andrew Atkinson
When you picture an ‘old man’, how do you visualise him? You’re not alone if your initial image is of a wrinkled, grey-haired figure in his slippers, sitting on a chair and watching TV or shuffling into the kitchen for a nice, hot drink. We’ve come to understand old age not as an opportunity but as a prison sentence, almost. Many people believe that retirement is about winding down, slowly becoming less and less capable, eventually becoming reclusive…
Is the stereotypical ‘old person’ image really true?
Not only are we thinking negatively and inaccurately when we visualise old people as immobile ‘vegetables’ in rocking chairs, we’re also thinking in a damaging way. A majority of people believe that old people shouldn’t be exercising – that being active can cause damage, or that an active lifestyle simply isn’t realistic – whilst the reality is very different. In fact, research and experience have shown that continued sport and activity through the retirement years continues to prolong lifespan, keeps the mind sharp and will lead to increased health and wellness. Essentially, the more you exercise, the more exercise you’ll be able to do!
If you believe that older people shouldn’t be exercising, and if you decrease your activity level as a result, then the myth becomes self-perpetuating as your body becomes incapable due to a lack of maintenance.
Why, then, do we see ‘old people’ as being incapable?
Becoming a stereotypical old person is one possibility. The image isn’t a complete lie, and there are some elements of your health and fitness that unfortunately are out of your control. What’s interesting, though, is that many people can change their own abilities.
If you don’t use your brain, or a certain part of it, then slowly an ability will fade. You’ll have experienced this if you learned a language at school and then stopped practicing once you left. If you try to speak in a foreign language that you used to know, can you recall it well enough to hold a conversation?
As we age, our brains are more prone to forgetting as the cells starts to wear down. If you don’t test your brain regularly, it will slowly start to give up. Doing puzzles, playing games and socialising are all ways to keep your mind sharp.
Your body is the same. Your muscle mass and fitness level can be maintained, or at least the degradation can be slowed, by keeping up your exercise regime. If you stop trying to be active, you’ll soon lose the ability.
Undoubtedly your body will have different limits at 80 than the limits that it had when you were 20 years old, but it’s important to keep testing those limits and to simply adapt your exercise to suit them. Some older people continue to run marathons, but if you’re not capable of a marathon then it is far better to go on a walk or to enjoy an afternoon of swimming than to assume that you’re ‘too old’ to keep working on your fitness.
Older people should not be seen as incapable, but it is certainly worth bearing in mind that capabilities might be different. Maintaining a good level of activity throughout your life is the best way to ensure that you’re starting from the best possible position when you reach your retirement years. If you’ve led an unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle then you will reach retirement age with a body that is already unable to handle a busy lifestyle, but with a good foundation there will be no reason that you can’t be an active older person – even if you end up needing a walking cane for your visits to the park, and a foot spa for relaxation at the end of the day!
– Andrew Atkinson is a director of the Mobility Smart team, a UK based online retailer of mobility and many other assisted products. Andrew has a real passion for mobility products and has written numerous articles offering his advice on how to make living easier.