By Amy Cameron O’Rourke, author of The Fragile Years
As a professional care manager for more than 40 years, it is my passion to help people & their loved ones find peace and joy as they age.
Our older years can provide a beautiful opportunity for connection, meaning, and joy. But staying healthy takes some work, and that work begins with the brain. From my extensive interactions with older adults, I have found 6 steps to be the most effective in keeping the brain in shape during the Fragile Years.
The first step: express yourself and be in touch with your emotions.
While this has not yet been studied, I’ve noticed that people who do not confront their emotions develop memory loss and decreased alertness much more often than those who are emotionally aware. Confronting and staying in touch with emotions can take a variety of forms, from sharing them aloud in conversations with family, friends, or support groups to meditating, journaling or creating music or art. Each individual has their comfort zone. The important thing is to pick one or two of these activities, and practice regularly.
The second step: stay socially engaged.
When you’re older, there is a higher risk of isolation and less social interaction than in your younger years. And isolation is a predictor of memory loss. With that fact, staying socially engaged keeps the brain working while also helping to give a sense of purpose.
To stay engaged socially, try making friends of different ages who do things you enjoy or volunteering at an organization whose cause you believe in such as animal shelters, Girls/Boys Clubs, your church or synagogue, music groups, science centers or museums.
Try something new as well, like art classes, singing, or even a part-time job. Many universities also offer lifelong learning programs for older adults, where they can take weekly classes on a huge variety of topics.
A client of mine is a recovering alcoholic who works at a 24-hour hotline. Another answers questions by phone about gardening for a local gardening center.
Two friends of mine in their 70’s help friends with their yards, as they are both avid gardeners. They call themselves the Garden Desperadoes.
There are endless ideas for social engagement – and age should never be a limitation.
The third step: maintain a healthy diet.
There is a high correlation between diabetes and dementia, as well as between obesity and dementia. Eating a more plant-based diet can help to prevent not only obesity and diabetes, but also dementia. Having a healthy diet all of the time is never easy, so do what you can to ensure you’ll make healthier eating decisions. Explore farmer’s markets. Try healthier food substitutes. For example, cauliflower rice instead of regular rice, honey instead of sugar, yogurt instead of ice cream, or bean burgers instead of beef burgers. If it’ll help you eat healthier and transportation is a challenge, buy your groceries from health-based food delivery services.
The fourth step: taking care of hearing loss.
Hearing loss is also correlated to early memory loss. Addressing hearing loss by seeking hearing aids where needed helps to prevent this. Often, though, hearing loss can be hard to identify so it’s important to pay attention to the signs. One indicator that a hearing aid might be needed: when you start to ask, “What did you say?” or “What?!” a lot, suggesting that your hearing is in decline. Also, when more than one family member or friend tells you they ARE speaking loudly, believe them.
The fifth step: avoiding anesthesia whenever possible in your Fragile Years.
Anesthesia is known to cause memory loss. The National Institute of Health is currently conducting in-depth research about this correlation.
When considering surgery for yourself or an older loved one, weigh the pros and cons carefully. Think about your values. If you value your cognitive health, it might be better to avoid surgery. If you already have memory loss and receive anesthesia, your memory will very likely get worse. In fact, the benefits of surgery decrease considerably after 80; it might be wise to favor memory and cognitive health over the uncertain outcome of surgery.
The sixth step: multitask both physically and mentally.
There are countless activities that can easily stimulate the mind and body at the same time. By doing these types of activities multiple times on a daily basis, your memory will thank you later. Activities such as walking, talking with family and friends, watering the plants or dusting while singing or listening to the news, painting easily accessible areas around the house while listening to your favorite music, or cooking while carrying out a conversation. These are all very doable in the Fragile Years.
With these six steps, both your brain and quality of life will be in much better shape during your Fragile Years.
Amy Cameron O’Rourke is a nationally-known pioneer and advocate for senior care in the U.S. She has been a professional care manager for more than 40 years, with 20 of those years at the helm of The Cameron Group (now Arosa), which she founded, as well as O’Rourke & Associates in Orlando, Florida. Amy is also the author of The Fragile Years.