Ageing Gracefully

From foods to support and nourish you, activities to nurture you and thinking and theories to transform your mindset, ageing well is a very real way to live…

“Old age is not a disease – it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses,” said Maggie Kuhn, a champion of embracing old age, and a well-known ageing activist. At 65 years old, when most people are contemplating retirement, Maggie Kuhn was setting up an organisation which was to become the culmination of her life’s work.

Ageing Activists

The Gray Panthers was started by Kuhn and a group of other retirees who all found themselves adrift in old age, and in need of a focus. They campaigned heavily for nursing home reform and ageism, fighting for the elderly to retain a seat at the table when discussions about their rights, health and choices were being had, and were instrumental in bringing abut nursing home reform, ending forced retirement provisions and fighting fraud against the elderly. She also challenged the popular ‘disengagement theory,’ a common cultural acceptance that the elderly must undergo a necessary separation from society as a prelude to death,

Kuhn’s energy and powerful persona become a talisman for The Gray Panthers and was seen by many a real representation of the power and energy of the elderly. She was a passionate activist of all social injustice throughout her life, and when she died, aged 89, she left behind a legacy of active and positive ageing that continues to this day: “Leave safety behind,” she said. “Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.”

Active Ageing

Kuhn’s energy and powerful persona become a talisman for The Gray Panthers and was seen by many a real representation of the power and energy of the elderly. She was a passionate activist of all social injustice throughout her life, and when she died, aged 89, she left behind a legacy of active and positive ageing that continues to this day: “Leave safety behind,” she said. “Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.”

Challenging the status quo

In America, for instance, The Grateful Aging Program is a movement to bring greater awareness to aging and the potential for growth and transformation. A a philosophy of life and a set of transformative practices for awakening to later life, GAP is about embracing the fullness of life, even in its later stages. “It is time to challenge our cultural assumptions about ageing,” says Marilyn Schlitz, PhD, a heath and wellbeing expert, who wrote a paper of the Grateful Aging Program (GAP). “By shifting our worldviews from fear to inspiration, we can see this demographic shift—and our place in it—as an opportunity for immense personal and collective growth and transformation. As each of us confronts aging…we find creative ways of living and being in the world. Many of us speak up for a new model of aging conceived as a great awakening.”

Now, more than ever, we need to have a plan of action for, and an acceptance of, the reality, and possibilities that ageing presents. “When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.” Victor Hugo

So, how you can be part of this global movement to embrace ageing with dignity, excitement and a real sense of possibility?

First, gratitude…

Scientists are becoming increasingly convinced of the power that gratitude has on our mental health and outlook. “Learning to live with gratefulness is part of a continuous process of waking up to life,” says Schlitz. In older people, the limbic system – the area of the brain that deals with our emotions and our memories actually becomes less effective if we’re focused on negative information – being positive, happier, sunnier and more grateful actually in turn helps us stay connected to our family and friends. “The trend is toward greater emotional positivity with increasing age,” says leading gratitude expert Robert Emmons of the University of California. One reason gratitude is so important is that it actually asks our brain to work a bit harder than the more basic emotions of happiness, fear, anger. Keeping our brain busy and active is vital.

On the subject of an active brain…

Keep learning. Learning new things and keeping your brain constantly developing new connections is key to a rich and fulfilling older age. A lot of people use their mid-50s as a chance to return to university, to finish courses they might have to stop prematurely finally pick up a skill they have been hoping to master all their lives. For women, especially, whose lives are often interrupted by the all-consuming job of motherhood, this can be an especially rewarding time. And don’t forget the simple day to day things, such as meditation, reading, solving puzzles, which all help to focus the mind.

An active body is vital too…

Exercise is an excellent way to give serotonin levels a boost, and it’s obviously good for our overall health too. You don’t have to pick golf – even though it is excellent for fitness – you can take up swimming, hiking, yoga, walking, dancing, pilates or even horse riding. Tara Parker-Pope , the founding editor of Well, writing in the New York Times recently, says that nothing is really off limits, and even advises high intensity training, which is short but powerful, and weight lifting, which strengthens muscle mass and builds stronger bones. “Learning while moving may be a potent way to slow the effects of aging, strengthening both the body and the mind at the same time. A body in motion will age better than one on the couch,” she says.

And, don’t forget your health generally…

This means ensuring plenty of exposure to things like sunshine and fresh air, maintain good blood pressure, low cholesterol, healthy weight, good diet, plenty of green vegetables and so on.

But really, it’s all about attitude…

Perhaps nothing could be more important. “Ageing is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Walter Bortz, MD, Stanford University School of Medicine professor and author of Living Longer for Dummies and Dare to Be 100. Your mindset it what will keep your life full and joyful. Thinking positive is essential. The way you think affects the way you feel, and the way your feel affects both your mental and physical health. If you feel happy and excited by all the opportunities in your life, if you see positives wherever you can, if you open your eyes to possibility, this will be reflected in your life and wellbeing.

The same is true of self-acceptance…

“Honour your reality, and embrace your ageing process because doing so decreases anxiety and worry,” says Dr Bill Gordon, writing in Psychbology Today. Acceptance of self and circumstance allows you to be all that you can be, making it easier to sit with all that you can no longer do or be. Self-acceptance isn’t about succumbing to old age and giving up on your life, but about seeing how your life works now and embracing the possibilities your find there. “Don’t look in the mirror and scrutinise the older person by the younger person that used to be there. Instead, cherish what you see as one of the universe’s great works of art – you,” he adds.

Finally, don’t forget love…

Relationships change all the time, getting older doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be filled with love and intimacy. Whether you have been married for decades or are starting your later years looking for new relationships, remember how important love is and how much it can lift you up. For married couples, love can always grow, kindness, shared passions, new discoveries of skills or learning, the joy of sharing children as they grow, all these things will keep your mind alert and your heart happy. For those looking for new love, the possibilities of new influences and worlds waiting for you can be invigorating and exciting. New love opens door, makes us see things anew and creates possibilities. It is an exciting, rewarding time. “To keep the heart unwrinkled, to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent that is to triumph over old age.” Amos Bronson Alcott.