As most people at retirement age are looking at a few chronic health conditions, it isn’t surprising that most are taking medications. According to astonishing 87 year old Ann Kahl, a fitness guru in Florida, we’re using these drugs to do what we ought to be doing ourselves in many cases, just by being more active. Ms. Kahl is a runner, triathlete, fitness coach and leader with a message: quit whining and just do it. She believes that your doctors want to keep prescribing drugs with all their side effects to have these things take the place of a healthier lifestyle. Maybe she’s right.
At AgingParents.com, where we consult with mostly middle-aged adult children who are having issues with their aging loved ones, we hear of their parents’ physical frailty, problems with moving and walking, declining mental faculties, and sometimes frequent doctor visits just to keep the aging parent alive. Their kids are groaning under the load. You can see how the parent got there. “She never exercised” they tell me. Or “he watched TV all day for years”. Now the parent has all the ailments, takes all the medications and has all the side effects, for which there are more medications. But are lots of pills the answer? Are they an excuse that allows one to forget getting off the couch and being more active? The people who seem to age well are nearly all exercisers to varying degrees, doing something active just about every day. Very few are going to look like the ultra lean Ann Kahl, nor be at her level of fitness but everyone can be inspired by how well she is aging. Here’s a video featuring her from Growing Bolder, a site that encourages physical fitness and sports at any age. Ms. Kahl says we’re overmedicated and undertrained.
What I take from Ms. Kahl’s message is this: everyone can do more and no one needs the excuse that it’s too hard or you can’t. What I see in my own work is that the aging parents who create the greatest burden for their adult children are the elders who are inactive and who have the most chronic and debilitating illnesses. None have described their parents as walkers, tennis players, gym goers or as being active at all. A few describe going to physical therapy as the parent’s big activity. This is not a happy picture. The adult children take on the responsibility of either providing care themselves or hiring appropriate help at high prices to do the heavy lifting for their loved ones. No matter whom one hires, there is the ongoing responsibility of supervision, management, replacement of workers as needed, and the all too common parental resistance t0 accepting what is offered and needed. That burden falls primarily on adult children, regardless of the aging parents’ financial status.
What is the takeaway for those of us at retirement age? We had better get moving lest we ourselves become that burden no parent wants to wish upon a loved one. It’s nearly universal that parents don’t want to burden their children. If you share that belief, think of what you can do to avert becoming a burden. Passing on your legacy of financial security is only one thing and has nothing to do with your own physical and mental health in aging. While it’s great to provide an inheritance for your heirs, you do no one a favor by neglecting to care for yourself in ways that are most likely to maximize your own good health and independence as you reach your 80s and beyond. You just may live past 80 and current life expectancy statistics suggest that you will. What those statistics do not tell us is what condition we’ll be in at those advanced ages. Other data tell us the truth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that chronic disease can be prevented with healthy lifestyle choices. You’re not stuck getting a disease just because someone in your family had it. Risk reduction for most illnesses is a choice.
In my own life, looking at aging issues every day in my work and noticing how my age-mates (70+) are doing, I can see what happens if you don’t bother with all the basics: prudent food intake, moving, managing stress, getting enough sleep, having social connections and the like. When you skip all that, you tend to have those chronic illnesses Ms. Kahl urges us all to avoid. When I see drug commercials on TV daily, and listen to the long list of side effects, like maybe you’ll die from taking this wonderful drug, I mute the TV. I think about my two adult kids and shudder at the thought of forcing a long slog of taking care of me on them.
OK, time to head for the pool for my workout! Thanks for the push, Ann Kahl.