Life after 50: the happy years

5/31/2017  By HealthNews

May 25, 2017 

May is Older Americans Month. Today is National Senior Health & Fitness Day.

America's population is aging. That's not exactly news. You've likely already experienced the affects of getting older to some degree:

slowing metabolism
muscle loss
increased body fat
decreased strength and stamina
decreased vision and hearing

But while physically we may be on a slow decline, studies suggest people often find their level of happiness rising significantly over time, beginning in the early 50s. Lifelong perspective is one possible reason for this shift. "As you get older, you know that bad times are going to pass," says Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "You also know that good times will pass, which makes those good times even more precious. There's an emotional savoring that comes with age."

That's great news. Which makes it even more vital to address the aging process in a way that helps us to live out those "happy years" in a best case scenario, taking into account our history and genetics. 

So let's start with something that, thanks to gravity, affects us all.

Falling short for seniors
About a decade ago, at a state-wide meeting of senior care organizations, the Department of Health sounded the alarm: Washington ranked in the top 5 states for falls in the U.S. Currently, 1 in 4 people over 65 fall, and some 27,000 die each year from falls. There was, and is, a desperate need for action.

According to RSVP* Director Carol Findley, who vividly remembers that state meeting, the most effective way to prevent senior falls is regular exercise - specifically, strength and balance exercises, three times a week. Other must-dos include wearing good shoes that properly fit your feet, keeping your home free of clutter, and making modifications such as more accessible bathroom fixtures - like changing from a traditional tub to a shower, and adding a shower seat for safety. 

It's a group effort
Unfortunately, fall protection isn't as simple as following a checklist. Even seniors with a desire to remain active can find regular exercise to be a challenge. Enter Stay Active and Independent for Life program (SAIL). Created as a result of the DOH report, SAIL classes are offered in communities across the state.

SAIL describes itself as a strength, balance and fitness program for seniors, designed to help improve strength and balance. One-hour classes are typically offered 2-3 times a week, and can be done standing or sitting. "We have people who do the exercises in wheelchairs," says Findley, touting the program's adaptability.

The local SAIL program is so popular, says Findley, there's a waiting list to get in. But don't let that stop you if you or a loved one are interested in checking it out. "Contact RSVP or one of the facilities where SAIL is offered. You can come and observe and see for yourself what it's all about," says Findley, who also distributes printed instructions of the SAIL exercises for those who wish to work out at home.

When asked to describe a typical SAIL gathering, Findley repeatedly uses the word "fun."  That's a theme echoed in SAIL's program description:

It works. You will be stronger, have better balance, feel better, and this will help you stay active and independent.

It's safe. The instructors are experienced and skilled, and exercises have been tested with seniors.

It's fun. You'll meet other seniors and make new friends.

According to Findley, SAIL classes are led by certified, trained instructors, who lead seniors through warm ups, strength and balance routines, and cool downs over the course of an hour. Participants are tested quarterly for progress. "This is more than just an exercise class," says Findley. "It's designed for seniors, for people who have led a full life but aren't ready to stop living yet. People come out of classes feeling better, more healthy, more social."

That sounds like a recipe for "happy years," indeed.

*Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Local chapter website: http://rsvp-wa.org/ellensburg/

Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.