Extract from Chapter 8: Helping our Elders Stay Healthy
Not all about the body, it is also about the heart
Perhaps the most important factor in a healthy old age is feeling connected to others – to family, to carers, to community. Our elders need people to take the time to chat with them, to listen, to share, to learn, to care. To make eye contact at the very least.
People who work in aged care say that they learn to slow down. To take the time to chat and listen to their residents. ‘It’s great to sit and talk with a resident and get to know them,’ one carer told me. ‘A lot revert to infantile behaviour, particularly with dementia, which sounds bad but it’s not, some of it is actually really good.’
It’s a lesson we could all learn. There are more ways we can help our parents than measuring their health and fitness. Sometimes we forget to have fun with them. Visits can become all about ‘helping’ and ‘monitoring’ and ‘caring’, rather than just normal interactions between people who love each other. When the grandkids visit, they spend the whole time laughing and listening to the old stories. They are not trying to make everything better. Sometimes we just need to consider all the other things our elders may like to do: play music, or have music played to them. If they love listening to favourite songs, download them onto a device they can manage, like a laptop, or buy one of those devices where you only need to say ‘Alexa’ or ‘Google’ or ‘Siri’, ‘play Cole Porter’, and bam, ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is filling the room. They are about $80 but you need wi-fi. Have singa-longs, play games, read poetry.
THE BLUE ZONES
According to researcher Dan Buettner, there are five zones in the world, which he calls ‘the Blue Zones’, where people live longer, happier and healthier lives: Ikaria in Greece; Okinawa in Japan; Ogliastra in Sardinia; Loma Linda in California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. He has identified common lifestyle factors that may contribute to their inhabitants’ wellbeing. They include putting family ahead of other concerns, physical activity that’s part of everyday life, and being socially active and integrated into the community.
The nine characteristics common to the people who live in the Blue Zones are:
- Moderate regular physical activity
- Life purpose
- Stress reduction
- Moderate calorie intake
- Mostly plant-based diet
- Moderate alcohol intake
- Engagement in spirituality or religion
- Engagement in family life
- Engagement in social life
I suspect that ‘moderate alcohol intake’ is just reflex finger wagging. We are talking ouzo and sake here, to mention just two top shelves. Plus, these regions brew their own. Coincidence? Just saying.
It seems to me that life purpose, engagement in family life and engagement in social life are the most important. Because this is where the elderly are most vulnerable, especially when they are placed into retirement villages or aged care homes, and visited less often than the family washes the car. Without a purpose in life, in family life and social life, none of the other things are possible. There will be stress, and the principal dietary problem will be that they stop eating much of anything.
Religion will comfort and help those who are already religious before they are marooned. And even though many retirement villages and aged care homes offer social activities such as a barbecue here, a film night there, perhaps even a day outing in the bus, they are no consolation for being removed from the family table and family life, from their neighbourhoods and their neighbours.
Pitching people in their eighties together and telling them to make new friends can be worse than any first day at school, worse than being conscripted. The wide, garden-fringed village streets where my parents live are generally empty of people. You could parade a marching band up those streets, eight across, and attract little more community participation than a twitching of curtains. These residences can become island prisons. Why is the company of strangers prescribed for people at a time when we most need the company of family and friends and community, of all age groups, and interests, and degrees of intimacy? Have we consciously created places where our elderly won’t stand out? A bit like leper colonies really. Or a quarantine. If we corral them and lock them up, maybe no-one else will get old.
A friend told me recently that in an Italian village she visits frequently, the elderly are everywhere, and they can be as rude, assertive and grumpy as they like; if there’s a queue they push in. Everyone else just smiles and regards them with affection and understanding; they have lived so long and seen so much, of course they can go to the front of the line! Their elders have a sense of belonging, a sense of place and a sense of protection. That is how it works there, and wouldn’t it be good if that was how it worked everywhere.
Keep an eye on your elders’ health whether they like or want it or not. Because they will need it.
- Regular reviews of your elders’ health can reduce the impact of ageing and nursing home admissions.
- Go with them to medical appointments.
- Check their medications.
- Check their teeth, eyes and ears.
- Check their car for dints.
- Check their life for purpose and meaning.
- Go for walks, eat together, visit often and have fun.
– ends –
- Read our 5-star review of We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad
Extract provided courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia. We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad, by Jean Kittson was released in March 2020.
RRP: $16.99 eBook, $34.99 trade paperback, $40 audiobook. Images of Jean and her parents by Rob Palmer. Cartoons from the book illustrated by Patrick Cook.