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Aging in Place: What You Need to Know About Healthy Aging

Aging in place means living in the home of your choice—safely and independently—as you get older. It's about living out your golden years in comfort. But it requires planning for how you will deal with any challenges that may arise. In essence, healthy aging involves creating the right environment and putting supports in place that allow you to meet your ongoing physical and emotional needs.

Did you know that American seniors are healthier today than they have been in years past? One study found that older adults were 14 percent more likely to say they were in excellent or very good health in 2014 than in 2000.1 Successful aging is influenced by a range of factors, including diet, lifestyle, and genetics. The reality is that you can be healthy at 50 or any other age by adopting a lifestyle that features regular exercise and a well-balanced diet. Of course, staying healthy and safe may require adapting your home to accommodate your changing needs, which you can read more about below.

This article outlines how the definition of successful aging has evolved over the past few decades. It also describes some common diseases that often come with age and explains what you can do to reduce your chances of being affected by them. And it provides practical tips on how to successfully age in place.

What Is Successful Aging? Changing Definitions

How do you measure success when it comes to aging? There isn't one simple answer to this question. Over the years, social scientists have proposed a myriad of models to explain how people age.

Psychosocial theories

There are three major psychosocial theories about the aging process: the disengagement, activity, and continuity theories.

Elaine Cumming and William E. Henry came up with the disengagement theory in 1961. The functionalist perspective on aging is expressed through this theory, which holds that older adults naturally and willingly withdraw from people and activities as they get older and begin to anticipate death. This withdrawal process is important, as it allows the social system to remain stable by providing for the orderly passing of productive social roles from elderly people to younger generations. Cumming and Henry suggested that aging successfully means accepting and going along with the natural process of disengagement. In more recent decades, the disengagement theory has been widely criticized for its negative view of aging and its assumption of universal decline. It has now been largely dismissed by gerontologists.

By contrast, the activity theory is based on the premise that older adults who remain active in retirement tend to be healthier and have higher levels of life satisfaction. Developed by Robert J. Havighurst as a counter to the disengagement theory, the activity theory suggests that you age successfully by continuing to engage in meaningful activities that interest you. However, critics point out that this theory fails to account for economic or health factors that prevent individuals from participating in such activities.

Continuity theory is centered around the notion that as people age, they preserve the same beliefs, relationships, and behaviors from earlier in their lives. First proposed by Robert Atchley, the continuity theory posits that older adults are guided by internal frameworks that remain constant throughout their lifespans. Therefore, aging successfully involves drawing on past experiences in order to adapt to the changes that occur later in life. However, this theory does not account for the physical challenges that frequently develop with age.

The biomedical model

According to a widely accepted biomedical model developed by John Rowe and Robert Kahn, there is a difference between usual aging (which involves significant physical decline) and successful aging (which does not). Rowe and Kahn's model suggests that the components of successful aging are:2

  • Being free of disability and disease
  • Maintaining good physical and mental functioning
  • Staying actively engaged in activities

However, a high percentage of people will not meet all three of these conditions. After all, the process of aging is often characterized by at least some degree of physical deterioration. If an 80-year-old person's activities are curtailed by disability, for example, does that mean he or she has failed to age successfully?

Not necessarily, according to many older adults. In fact, in one study, more than 30 percent of seniors over age 65 felt they had aged successfully even though they were dealing with functional difficulties and chronic conditions. In their eyes, success was not predicated on the absence of illness or disease.3

Some people would like to replace the word "successful" with "optimal." So, what is optimal aging? Simply put, it is being able to maximize your capabilities and life satisfaction regardless of your state of health. Optimal aging involves making the necessary lifestyle and activity adjustments so that you can enjoy your life to the fullest.

7 Common Diseases of Aging and How to Lower Your Odds of Getting Them

The normal aging process is comprised of a multitude of subtle physical changes. You may notice that your hair is turning grey, you don't see as well as you used to, your skin is getting more wrinkled, and you often forget details like where you left your car keys. These types of changes are normal and are no cause for alarm.

However, getting older also makes people more susceptible to more serious medical issues. For example, common elderly health problems include hearing impairments and high blood pressure. But you don't have to accept poor health as the inevitable result of aging. In many cases, age-related diseases can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. You keep healthy when aging by exercising regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, managing stress, and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol.

Some of the most common diseases of old age are arthritis, diabetes, flu, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and osteoporosis. Here are more details on each one, along with what you can do to protect yourself:

Arthritis

Arthritis is a blanket term for a variety of disorders that involve inflammation in the joints. The condition can cause pain, stiffness, and decreased range of motion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says arthritis affects about half of all adults over age 65.4

How to reduce your risk: Be kind to your joints by using proper lifting techniques and keeping your arms and legs well supported when you sit. Eat foods rich in antioxidants, such as herbs and fresh fruits. Maintain a healthy weight to help take strain off your knee and hip joints. And participate in regular exercise that includes both strengthening routines and low-impact aerobic activities (such as swimming) to help you stay strong and flexible.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition that occurs when you have excess levels of blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes, in which the cells of the body are unable to use insulin properly, commonly affects older adults. In fact, according to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), more than 12 million Americans over the age of 60 suffer from diabetes.5

How to reduce your risk: Keep extra pounds off, especially around your waistline. Eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits and stay away from foods and beverages that are high in sugar. Try to make a habit of going for a brisk walk—being physically active can lower your chances of getting diabetes.

Flu and pneumonia

Respiratory illnesses like flu and pneumonia are common in old age and cause body aches, fatigue, sore throat, cough, and chills. While anyone can come down with flu or pneumonia, older adults have weaker immune systems that make them more vulnerable to these illnesses. Seniors are also at high risk of developing serious complications from such conditions.

How to reduce your risk: Steer clear of people who are ill, wash your hands frequently with warm soapy water, and try not to touch your nose, eyes, or mouth. Be sure to get a flu shot each year; if you're over 65, ask your healthcare provider about the high-dose flu vaccine or adjuvanted flu vaccine, which can provide stronger protection. Also, consider getting a pneumococcal vaccine to protect yourself against pneumonia and meningitis.

Heart disease

Heart disease refers to a range of conditions that interfere with the heart's normal functioning, from clogged arteries to disturbances in the heart's rhythm. According to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics, heart disease is the number one cause of death among Americans over age 65.6

How to reduce your risk: Eat a balanced diet that includes lots of vegetables. Limit your alcohol intake and avoid foods with high amounts of sugar and saturated fat. Be physically active, do not smoke, and keep your blood pressure under control. Aim to maintain a healthy weight and watch your waistline—excess fat around your middle can raise your odds of developing heart disease.

Cancer

As you age, your risk of developing cancer increases, even if you have no family history of the disease. Breast, skin, prostate, and stomach cancers all become more common as people get older. More than 85 percent of cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are in people who are at least 50 years old.10

How to reduce your risk: Get at least half an hour of physical activity each day. Avoid cigarettes and try to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke. Base your diet around vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and stick to moderate alcohol consumption. Protect your skin from the sun. And make sure you see your healthcare provider for regular screening tests, such as colonoscopies or mammograms.

Dementia

Our brains take longer to process information as we get older, and momentary lapses of memory are perfectly normal. But dementia refers to a set of symptoms that impair cognitive abilities to the extent that they interfere with day-to-day life. Such symptoms are not a normal part of the aging process. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, but there are others. The National Institute on Aging notes that up to 50 percent of adults over age 85 may suffer from some form of dementia.8

How to reduce your risk: Adopt a regular exercise routine that includes activities like swimming, walking, or yoga. Maintain your weight within a healthy range, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, limit your intake of alcohol, and stay away from cigarettes. Keep both your blood pressure and stress level under control. Also, stay socially active and stimulate your brain by pushing yourself to learn new things.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones lose mass or density and become brittle and weak. People often have no symptoms until they fracture or break a bone (typically in the spine, hip, or wrist). People can get osteoporosis at any age, but it's much more common in older adults, particularly postmenopausal women.

How to reduce your risk: Engage in resistance or weight-bearing exercises like yoga, tai chi, weight lifting, or water aerobics to keep your bones strong. Get plenty of vitamin D and calcium, and don't smoke or drink heavy amounts of alcohol. Check with your healthcare provider to see if a bone density test would be appropriate for you.

4 Tips on Aging in Place

If you're like most people, you'd like to stay in your own home for as long as you possibly can. Here are four tips to help you age in place successfully:

  1. Decide exactly where you want to live.

    The ultimate aim of aging in place is to maintain your independence and avoid moving into an assisted living facility. For most people, that means staying in their current home. But if your home has too many stairs, or you live far from public transit, or you're located too far from emergency help, another solution might be to move to a different home within the same community or take up residence in an adult child's in-law suite or granny house. After all, isolation is a major issue for older adults, and maintaining social connections should be a priority when considering where you will spend your golden years. Weigh your options carefully.

    If you do opt to stay put, you may want to look into joining a senior "village." Villages are membership organizations in which older residents within a geographic area band together to provide services that members need in order to be able to age in place, from yard work and spring cleaning to home repairs and transportation. The idea is to enjoy the benefits of a group environment while staying in your own home. Each village member pays an annual membership fee, and the services are provided by other able-bodied members or approved contractors. You can check for villages in your area on the Village to Village Network website.

  2. Adapt your home.

    Once you've chosen a place to live, you need to make sure it will be suitable for you. After all, a safe environment is critical to healthy aging. Home modifications can easily make a living space more accessible and comfortable for older adults, but you need to plan ahead so that the modifications will already be in place when you need them.

    For instance, you might want to:

    • Install shower grab bars and taller toilets
    • Replace the tub with a walk-in shower that includes a bench or fold-down seat
    • Widen doorways to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs
    • Build ramps
    • Add floor treads to prevent falls
    • Install sliding or pocket doors rather than swing-out doors
    • Remove area rugs as well as any unnecessary furniture
    • Replace round doorknobs with levers
    • Add automatic lights and touch-activated lamps
    • Replace low kitchen cupboards with pullout shelves and drawers
    • Raise up appliances and electrical outlets
    • Add a lower counter area where you can sit to do food prep
    • Put lights in all closets
    • Establish a master bedroom on the ground floor and make sure there is a bathroom on each level
    • Install stair lifts or elevators

    You can get professional advice about how to modify your home by contacting a certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS). CAPS professionals have specialized training in designing and crafting living spaces that meet the unique needs of seniors. They can assess your home environment and advise you about accessibility issues, remodeling projects, and costs. You can get a list of CAPS professionals from the National Association of Home Builders.

  3. Explore technology solutions.

    Technology can be a key tool to keep aging-in-place seniors connected with the wider world. In fact, one study found that elderly people who used the Internet could reduce their chances of developing depression by over 30 percent.9 And there are many computers and tablets that are suitable for older adults or that can be made more senior-friendly with a few adjustments.

    Voice-controlled assistive devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo can allow you to set medication reminders or control the temperature or lighting in your home with simple verbal commands. Such devices can also place phone calls, read books aloud, or play music. In addition, things like video doorbells that enable you to see whoever's at the door without opening it and sensor systems that can detect falls and alert emergency contacts can be very handy for older adults who live alone.

  4. Consider hiring a companion or in-home caregiver.

    Eventually, you will probably need extra support in order to remain in your home, such as help with household chores or personal care. Companion care can be a good solution for seniors who need more social interaction or who require help with tasks like cooking, cleaning, getting to appointments, or shopping for groceries. And home care services can provide assistance with bathing, dressing, taking medications, and more. Using these types of services can give you the support you need to remain in your home safely.

Plan for Your Future

Aging in place is all about optimizing your environment in a way that allows you to live where you want as long as you possibly can. Healthy aging doesn't necessarily mean avoiding physical challenges, but it does mean being prepared to deal with those challenges by making the necessary modifications to your lifestyle or living space. By planning ahead, you can help ensure that you are well-positioned to enjoy your golden years in comfort.

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