Staying Involved Adds Fun to Age
Frances Blakney is the first person guests meet when they come for lunch at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center in Philadelphia. She dispenses information, meal tickets, support and enthusiasm, and receives pleasure in return.
"I volunteer every day," says Ms. Blakney, 73. "I enjoy going to the center and being active. When I sit around, my bones get stiff and my mind isn't as fluid."
Ms. Blakney is putting into practice the best information experts have for maintaining a high quality of life. Research suggests the more physically and mentally active you are, the fewer discomforts and disabilities you may face. The best part is that you can join in your favorite hobbies, have fun and age well at the same time.
For example, dancing with a partner, playing an instrument with fellow musicians or playing a board game with a friend may reduce your risk for dementia. That's the conclusion of Joe Verghese, M.D., an assistant professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y. In a long-term study of 469 mentally alert people over age 75, Dr. Verghese and colleagues noted those people who took part in leisure pastimes had a reduced risk for dementia.
You may improve your cognitive skills by playing cards with your friends, according to Sidney Stahl, Ph.D., branch chief with the National Institute on Aging. Learning a new language or mastering a game gives you some advantages, but it's more important just to stay busy.
"I don't have evidence that picking up new skills has benefits, but I do know that maintaining activities does enhance emotional and mental well-being," Dr. Stahl says. "I suspect that acquiring new skills might be beneficial as well."
Other studies suggest that staying physically active can promote mental alertness by improving blood flow to the brain, Dr. Verghese says.
If you keep moving, you're also less likely to succumb to illness, Dr. Stahl says. "The major problem is that people think there's a push to run three to four miles. It's not necessary. It's more essential to remain active, doing such things as walking."
If you want something more exciting than a stroll, of course, you'll find plenty of options. Line dancing gets guests moving at Ms. Blakney's center.
"We have four line dance classes where people get exercise and learn new dances as well," says Ms. Blakney. Last year the participants went to Louisiana for Mardi Gras. In another Martin Luther King center program, participants learned to do carpentry and lay tiles to save money on home repairs.
You can find programs designed for your interests, whether physical or artistic.
"In Philadelphia, we're trying to dispel notions about senior centers," says Lynn Spiro, the Older Adults Services Director with the Philadelphia recreational centers. Each of the city's five centers provides different programs. Sometimes seniors will visit two or three different sites, going to one for tax help, another for a class in watercolor painting and still another for strength training.
"The people we're seeing are healthy and mobile and can get out and about. They're looking for the services they want, not just what's offered," says Ms. Spiro. Consumer demand led to the creation of classes for yoga, tai chi, aerobics, computer, piano, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian.
Still, taking that first step can be overwhelming. Choose an interest and partner with a friend to attend classes or ask a family member to go with you for a tour of a senior center. Some have greeters or buddies to introduce you, and before long you'll feel comfortable.
"I see seniors who retire to live, not to die. They do it through healthy meals, socialization and learning new skills," says Ms. Blakney.
Where to find programs
The recreation division of your city, municipality, township or county. Ask what kinds of fitness, craft and educational programs they offer.
Parks. Some garden clubs are affiliated with local parks. You may find classes and opportunities to volunteer.
Restaurants or local cooking schools. Take lessons in ethnic cooking. If you're interested in a particular cuisine but no class is offered, approach a chef with three or four friends to see if you can get instruction for a reasonable fee.
The public library. If your library doesn't host a book club, ask if you can start one.
Your YMCA. You can find anything from Pilates to basketball. You don't have to sign up for "senior" classes.
High schools, community colleges and universities. Knitting, computers, ethnic cooking, investing and journal writing are popular classes. Some colleges let residents audit courses without college credit for a reduced fee.
Elderhostels throughout the United States combine vacations and learning experiences for older adults.
Medical centers may provide wellness, exercise, diet and healthy cooking classes. When you go for an annual flu vaccine, check the bulletin boards for information.
Although studies have shown an association between some of the activities listed above and a reduced risk for cognitive decline and dementias such as Alzheimer's disease, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren’t sure whether these factors can actually prevent them.