Live Long and Prosper
There is a lot of life left beyond the marketplace’s coveted 18-35 age demographic, particularly as the average American life expectancy has risen to 77.6 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Age is largely a state of mind, said Susan Mathieu, an assistant professor of recreation and leisure studies and CSULB alumna who specializes in therapeutic recreation, particularly for older adults and for abused adolescents. “Genes control only about 30 percent of how we age and the rest depends on us. We have 70 percent to work with. In that 70 percent, what we’re looking at is exercise, socialization and nutrition.”
Although specialists in aging continue to focus on changing attitudes about growing older, many seniors are still having a rough time. Mathieu recently completed a study of sources of stress among Filipino, Latino and Jewish participants at senior recreation centers. “I wanted to know how we can keep older adults from being depressed and help them live longer, but maintain the quality of their life. They’re living in isolation, they’re losing best friends and they’re losing their partners. I wanted to know what we as recreation and leisure service professionals can do about it,” Mathieu said.
Many of the older adults she interviewed weren’t as concerned with health or financial issues. Rather, their most significant source of stress was the feeling of being overlooked by others, “as if they were invisible.”
But by focusing on socialization, exercise and nutrition, individuals can strive toward longer and happier lives, Mathieu emphasized. The advent of communities such as Leisure World and Sun City, senior centers and programs like the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at CSULB provide opportunities for older adults to remain active.
“In the noted socio-cultural theory of normal aging is the disengagement theory, where we felt that as people grew older, they would disengage and slow down for retirement and they’d have fewer activities,” Mathieu explained. “But what we’re finding is, to live longer, they need more things to do. The more complex activities they have, the more they’re going to find purpose and have confidence and self-esteem. With more physical and mental activity, I found that they have higher happiness ratings and that by providing a social network, they had better social worth.”
Social worth is the positive feeling gained through contact with others and provides comfort during difficult times. Mathieu’s personal experience in telling her 84-year-old mother that Mathieu’s brother died provided a good example. “I knew with all my research that it’s not family that matters so much, it’s the social network. This woman has an active life. She plays poker with her friends twice a week. She’s involved in an exercise group and she has friends calling her every morning saying, ‘What’s doing?’ She lives in a community that is mostly people over 55 that care about her. So, I felt that as grief-stricken as she was going to be, this was going to help her through.”
It also helps to have a sense of humor. The work of Norman Cousins and others has shown the benefit of positive thinking, even in the face of adversity. “How did the Jews get through the Holocaust? They have found that in the groups of people that survived, many of them had a sense of humor,” Mathieu said. Anger only increases stress and raises blood pressure.
Many people carefully plan their retirement finances, but not how they will spend their time. “People are working so many hours that they have no time to make friends outside of work,” or develop other personal interests, Mathieu noted. “In therapeutic recreation, we call planning for retirement leisure education.”
Other ways to stay involved include volunteering or consulting.
Exercise is another essential component. “It’s never too late to exercise,” she said. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re too old to start. You can just sit around all day and atrophy if you want, or you can get out there.” Walking, bicycling or recreation classes are great ways to stay fit. She particularly likes the concept of gyms like Curves that offer quick, guided exercise programs that also encourage socialization.
The third major key to longevity is diet. “We have found that when people live alone, it’s easier to open up a can or frozen foods and just throw something in the microwave. It’s important, especially with so many farmers’ markets available to us, that we eat fresh fruits and vegetables and keep fast foods at a minimum,” Mathieu remarked. Regularly sharing meals with family or friends also is beneficial.
“What I want people to understand also is that they can change their whole lifestyle and live longer,” she said. “If they’re just a little grumpy, they can relax and start walking and eat healthy and make some changes in their life. You’re never too old to change.”
“It is well documented that one’s attitudes toward aging may influence one’s future health,” said Professor Susan Mathieu. Her advice for increased longevity is:
• Balance work and play.
• Laugh and socialize more than you think is necessary.
• Practice preventive health care.
• Exercise and eat fresh fruits and vegetables.
• Reduce stress—it’s a killer!