Freedom after 50

By Hennig, Wanda | The Saturday Evening Post, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Freedom after 50


Hennig, Wanda, The Saturday Evening Post


Live long enough, you get old - that's life, but living free, fit and fabulous - that's the challenge.

Five years ago, baby boomer Jennifer King had what she calls "that old-school notion of seniors." Poised to begin a new job - as director of the West Oakland Senior Center - "I expected to be spending the rest of my working life calling out bingo numbers." The first time she looked in on a line-dancing class at the center and saw 60 to 70 men and women expertly whizzing around the floor and realized many were not much older than her, she awakened to a new reality. "I went in thinking I'd find folk like my grandmother," she says. "In fact, I encountered quite the opposite."

King realized that in planning new programs, it was more appropriate to think - not in terms of her grandmother- but herself.

Now 52, King is three years from 55 - the official sign-up age at the city's four senior centers. She is two years into the AARP classification of senior, namely 50. She is 13 years short of the conventional U.S. retirement age of 65 and slapbang in the middle of the boomer generation: the 76 million Americans born between 1945 and 1964. In this context, she is riding the so-called silver tsunami.

Well-known people transitioning into AARP's "seniorhood" include Sharon Stone, Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ellen DeGeneres, Prince and Viggo Mortensen. Sir Paul McCartney, at 65, has passed his famous "When I'm 64" benchmark. The word "seniors" sounds stodgy, but as King discovered firsthand, there is no such thing these days as "be your age" or "act your age." With wrinkles come wisdom, confidence and newfound freedom. It's all about choice.

FIT FOR FUN

"If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself." Ever heard anyone trapped in an outof-shape body utter pianist Eubie Blake's familiar lament? Keeping fit, mentally and physically, is a quality-of-life choice.

"There are 80-year-olds climbing Mount Tarn and 60-yearolds who can't make it as far as the corner store," says Mary Louise Zernike, a senior nutritionist and health advisor with the Alameda County Department of Adult and Aging Services in Oakland, California. So - which do you want to be?

For anyone aged 50 and older, health experts recommend:

* Energetic aerobic exercise three times a week. Walking, swimming anything that boosts the heart rate. Start at 20 to 30 minutes and build to an hour.

* Strength training twice a week, 20 to 30 minutes. "Without it, we lose muscle mass." Join a gym or do weights or resistance work at home.

* Maintain flexibility by doing something that gets you stretching Qigong, tai chi, or dancing three times a week will work.

When it comes to weight, beware of abdominal obesity. Obesity, as most of us know, is associated with diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, and - important whether we want to grow old gracefully or disgracefully - being overweight puts strain on joints, such as the knees, which can seriously interfere with mobility.

MIND OVER MONOTONY

What's good for the body is good for the mind - but the mind is more demanding. Research suggests that diet-wise, adequate hydration and omega-3 fatty acids are key. Omega3s have been shown to reduce inflammation.

"Ours is a culture of stressed-out people, and stress and depression are strong risk factors for Alzheimer's and dementia," says Teri Barr. A teacher with a California adult-school 50-plus program, Barr set about researching memory and aging when she heard complaints of memory loss. She found a growing body of research that suggests our brains are plastic, meaning malleable, and, given the right circumstances, can grow new synapses and neurons. But while a regular fitness routine works for the body, with the brain you have to constantly up the ante.

"When you first do something complicated, you use a lot of your brain. When it becomes familiar to you, you go into 'user -brain. …

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