Americans are living longer than ever – so much so that many people who are nearing retirement themselves are also tending to their aging parents. That job is much easier when they remain independent, but stubbornness about the changes that accompany aging can make things difficult. As you think about how to best support your parents, consider how the strategies you’ll suggest for them may also help you.
I’ve long been a proponent of physical exercise (both aerobic and weight-bearing), good nutrition, regular health screenings, and adequate sleep as the foundations of health and important contributors to healthy aging.
- Since your parents are still independent, encourage them to incorporate physical fitness into their everyday lives. Advise them to walk instead of driving when possible, work in the garden, bicycle – the more they do to stay active, the longer they can stay independent.
- Keep an eye on what they are eating – good nutrition is important at any age. Some lean meat, fish, vegetables, legumes, and fruit, whole grains, and healthy fats are the basis of a healthy diet at any age. They help stave off heart disease, brain degeneration, and diabetes, all of which affect quality of life in old age.
- Gently remind them of the importance of regular health screenings. Routine testing can reveal warning signs of conditions that are much more easily treated in their early stages. .
- Review their meds. Sometimes short-term medications are started and then never stopped, or continued past the point where they are helpful. As many meds carry risks, including the risk of dizziness and falls, it’s worth the effort to review what each is contributing, if it’s necessary, and if a better alternative might be available.
- Ask how they are sleeping. Restorative sleep is good for both physical and mental health, and it protects cognitive function as well. Insomnia is a common complaint among the elderly and should not be ignored, as it may be a sign of depression.
- Watch out for other signs of depression, which can often appear as aches and pains, irritability, or memory lapses. Depression is underdiagnosed in the elderly; it can be treated effectively with medication and talk therapy.
One of the best ways to ensure a healthy old age is to plan for it. Many people hope that they can age in place, so taking steps to ensure that a home is safe (including eliminating trip hazards and identifying alternatives to stairs) is key. Having a backup plan in place may make it easier to accept a change if aging in place is no longer feasible. Help your parents evaluate their living situation to see if there are safety issues, and remind them that the safer their home is, the longer they’ll be able to stay in it.
Of course, advice for healthy aging only works for those who act on it. Stubborn parents who resist efforts to help them can be vexing to say the least. A new book just published by my colleague Steven Petrow addresses many of the issues faced by the adult children of aging parents, with advice that’s both practical and humorous. “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” is a collection of essays that cover the author’s observations of the ill-advised habits of his (and his friends’) parents as they grew older.
Steven tells of how his parents and grandparents stubbornly refused to acknowledge their diminishing abilities, continuing to drive (with disastrous results), refusing to use hearing aids (leading to a painfully funny episode at a Broadway show), and failing to plan for the inevitable. The book is an excellent and instructive read for anyone coping with aging parents and fair warning of what adult children should be doing to plan for their own later years.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Petrow, Steven. Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong. New York: Citadel Press, 2021