Every so often I get asked to speak to groups of people who are interested in improving their experiences of aging. Usually, they’re in their thirties or forties. They want to know how to understand their aging parents or plan ahead as they get older. (Several people who bought my book explicitly said, “I don’t want to turn out like my parents.” No comment!)
Often, especially with millennials and younger generations, the question comes up: “What’s your advice? I want to be active and healthy in my 60s 70s and beyond.”
Of course, I refer everyone to my favorite resources, which are listed here on my blog.
But when pressed for advice, I have just three recommendations.
(1) Start a fitness program as early as possible.
I began weight-lifting and aerobic dancing somewhere in my twenties. Before taking classes, I was a perfect definition of “wuss.” I found every excuse to miss gym classes. I’d be the last person chosen for team sports, which was rather nice since I usually got to sit on the sidelines and watch.
I started classes initially because my friends were doing it…but eventually, I discovered the joys of bragging. I was always astounded when someone complimented me. (I still am, sometimes.) “They can’t mean me! I’m the lazy one in the corner.”
My impure motives have paid dividends. Besides gaining bragging rights, there’s a social component. Whenever I moved, I could join a gym and be around other people who shared at least one interest.
Since then, I’ve heard doctors say over and over again, “Exercise is the single most important component of staying healthy as you age.” The research has been summarized in a Wall Street Journal article.
This article in WebMD counters the most common objections to exercise..
So frankly, there’s no controversy about exercise. I would just encourage everyone to avoid one mistake I made. I focused on strength and cardio, but didn’t pay enough attention to flexibility. I now take yoga classes. I don’t like yoga but I love what it does for my body. I wish I’d added yoga and pilates to my routines, back when I was just dancing.
My second piece of advice will be more controversial.
(2) You’ll need money. The more, the better.
Just recently the New York Times published an article on the increasing number of “seniors” who experience financial need. The US has a much thinner safety net than other industrialized countries, which means many people fall into poverty. That in turn translates to a difficult, stressful lifestyle.
In my book, I have a whole chapter on the importance of having money as you get older.
For one thing, you’ll face age discrimination sooner or later. You may not be able to work, even if you are physically and mentally capable and motivated.
Our culture prepares us to plan for retirement at age 65 or younger. Those who resist retirement face reactions ranging from resentment (“you’re displacing a younger person”) to disbelief (“at your age…”) to pity (“what’s wrong, can’t you afford to retire?).
Money gives you choices. You can move to a place where you’ll feel welcome, safe, and comfortable. You can afford a higher-priced insurance plan with more benefits. You can travel comfortably.
Most importantly, money gives you access to opportunities to meet people and avoid loneliness. Money gives you access to trainers, gyms, and other resources for staying fit. Money gives you services for cleaning, moving, recreation, and transportation.
Sometime ago our local newspaper ran an article about the problems of aging in Philadelphia. Mostly, that article was about the problems of being poor in Philadelphia. If you own a nice home without stairs, you can hire lots of services to come to you.
So start saving early. I’m not a financial planning expert so I can’t be more specific.
In my book, I recommend that you figure out what you’ll do if you want to work past retirement age. Often you’ll find many things you can continue if you start early. You can be an 80-something doctor, lawyer, psychotherapist, bus driver (in some cities), flight attendant (on some airlines), Zumba instructor, author, speaker, and more.
The catch? You rarely get to start working at retirement age. You need to have achieved some success well before that point. You can continue but not start.
In my book, I say your career is like a merry-go-round. When it stops you have to jump off…unless you’ve chosen a merry-go-round that won’t stop till you ring the bell.
(3) Be prepared for curve balls.
You can do everything right and still end up with problems. You can follow all the health recommendations and still die young.
I also know people who ignored all advice. They were couch potatoes who ate whatever they wanted and didn’t exercise much. They lived on tight budgets. And they lived longer, healthier, and happier than their more careful counterparts.
I know people who saved well and experienced a crisis that left them in dire financial straits. Others didn’t start saving till very late and experienced a windfall.
Nothing is guaranteed.
But you’ll increase your odds with money and fitness.