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Helping Seniors Live Longer

Healthy elderly woman.
Advise seniors to eat meals incorporating whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish, and herbal teas to add important vitamins, antioxidants and complex carbohydrates to their diets.

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December 9, 2011

Just a century ago, you could expect to live until age 50. That’s it. It was “end of the road,” not “over the hill” as we call it today. But thanks to advances in health care and overall standards of living since 1900, the current average life expectancy has risen to 78.4 in the U.S. and 81.5 in Canada, according to the CIA World Factbook. Today, many seniors even live into their 90s or past 100—a feat of healthy, purposeful living that other older adults can model with guidance from senior healthcare professionals.

Living Long = Living Well

It makes sense. Seniors who stay healthy live longer. But how can you help seniors maintain good health when the odds of developing dementia, diabetes, heart disease, some form of cancer, or a host of other ailments are against them? Some answers might come from the Greek island of Ikaria where a remarkable one in three natives reach 90 years of age.

According to an AARP The Magazine article called “Live More Good Years,” researchers discovered that, compared to Americans over 90, Ikaria’s 90-plus population experienced 20 percent fewer incidents of cancer, half the rate of heart disease, one-ninth the rate of diabetes and virtually no Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

A combination of Ikarian cultural factors seems to hold the key to living a healthier, longer life. Ikarians eat a Mediterranean diet, nap daily, walk wherever they need to go, maintain social and spiritual connections, and keep a carefree attitude about time.

You can encourage similar habits to help North American older adults add years to their life. Advise seniors to eat meals incorporating whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish, and herbal teas to add important vitamins, antioxidants and complex carbohydrates to their diets. Seniors will also benefit from scheduling walks or daily exercises, naps, and opportunities for social interaction and religious practices into their day. Adopting a carefree attitude about time may not translate as well to our culture of hectic schedules and tight deadlines, but look for ways to reduce stress by demonstrating patience with seniors who might take longer to complete tasks.

Another approach to increasing lifespan takes into consideration not only the good behaviors to adopt, but also which behaviors to avoid. A recent CDC report boils the secret to longevity down into four key habits:

  • Do exercise regularly
  • Do eat a healthy diet
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t drink alcohol excessively

The report found that people who followed these four dos and don’ts were 63 percent less likely to die earlier than people who did not follow any of them. While those who practice healthy habits throughout life receive the greatest benefit in terms of longevity, remind seniors that it is never too late to start eating good foods, engaging in physical activity and refraining from unhealthy habits. Suggest making one positive change at a time to prevent a senior from becoming overwhelmed by too many lifestyle changes.

Ensuring Quality of Life with Extended Life

Seniors may find little point in striving to extend their life if it’ll mean more years of isolation, boredom and unhappiness. In order to live a longer life, seniors must have something to live for.

In an essay titled “Listen, Learn and Live to Be 100,” journalist Neenah Ellis shares what she learned from interviewing over 25 centenarians. What keeps them all going, she found, is that they all have plans for the future—something much bigger themselves to be a part of and look forward to.

As a senior care professional, you may be in a position to help older adults find purpose in their lives. Work with seniors and their families to figure out how taking up a hobby, attending senior center activities, volunteering in the community or visiting with family and friends on a regular basis can be arranged. You can also work to ensure seniors receive the level of care necessary to manage activities of daily living while maintaining as much independence and dignity as possible. With a little encouragement and guidance, seniors will be well on their way to living happy, healthy, purposeful lives well into their 80s, 90s, and maybe even past 100.

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Thoughts and stories from others
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