Aging Matters: Increased life expectancy brings challenges and opportunities

Do we really lose brain cells as we age? And how much money will I need for retirement? Questions like these are becoming more common as our population grows older.

According to a recent report released by the Executive Office on Aging, Hawaii’s elders fare much better than elders on the Mainland. They live longer, are more likely to live in their own home or with family, and are less likely to experience disability from chronic illnesses.

This hasn’t always been the case. In 1910, our life expectancy was below the national average at only 44 years. It took until 1950 for Hawaii to exceed the national average. But since then, the state has continued it’s upward trend. Today, Hawaii’s fastest growing segment of the population is of those over age 85.

An increased life expectancy has brought about both challenges and opportunities. Children today are more likely than ever before to know and spend time with great, and sometimes great-great, grandparents. And yet, our longer lives mean that diseases virtually unknown 100 years ago are becoming more common.

Even with the diseases associated with later life, more adults are enjoying years of health long into retirement. Did you know that when 65 was established as the standard retirement age, the national life expectancy was only 63 years. In Hawaii it was just 60 years!

A quick browse through the library database will bring up a long list of authors promoting the wonders of age. Each describes it differently and some have even coined their own terms – anything from successful to graceful or productive aging. The emphasis is always the same; making the years after retirement as healthy and fulfilling as possible.

Although each person defines “successful” aging differently, common themes include volunteerism, lifelong learning, exercise, purposeful activities, and good nutrition. Let’s take a look at a few of these themes.

Volunteerism is common among retirees in Hawaii. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, nearly 20 percent of Hawaii’s adults over age 65 volunteered between 2008 and 2010.

It doesn’t take long to finds many older adults who regularly give back to our community.

After retiring as a preschool director, “Grandma Rosie,” age 80, began volunteering with the Foster Grandparent Program. Each week, she volunteers 15 to 20 hours with the children at Iao Preschool. Her fellow foster grandparent volunteers can attest to the joy she both gives and receives as she shares her time and experience with the preschool staff and children.

It hasn’t always been easy. She’s undergone surgery, hospitalization, and serious illness, but she bounces back each time. Each time, both she and the children are anxious for her return to the classroom.

Regular physical activity isn’t just good for the heart. It also contributes to brain health. The average brain is only a couple pounds, but it uses 20 percent of the oxygen our bodies take in each day. Exercise raises the heart rate, which means more oxygen-rich blood is coursing through and feeding the brain.

There are endless options for physical activity. Some older adults enjoy exercising with others in classes, while others prefer walking or swimming.

Exercising isn’t just for those who are healthy and can get about on their own. Enhance Fitness is a great example of a program designed for older adults of all fitness levels and chronic conditions. It’s new to the island, sponsored by the Maui County Office on Aging, and held in various locations. Participants exercise at their own pace, some exercise seated or while others stand. After just a couple months, participants comment that they feel stronger and have much better balance.

Remember to always get approval from your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

And finally, we need to talk about money. As retirement costs rise, many people are choosing to stay in the workplace either part- or full-time. This has been shown to be beneficial for a variety of reasons beyond the added income. The workplace allows older adults to challenge their mind, remain in a social environment, and maintain a routine.

Some choose an encore career that is very different from their “pre-retirement” career, while others stay in their field and mentor younger workers. This may not fit the typical picture of retirement, but many have found it to be an ideal way to slowly transition from full-time employment to full-time retirement.

* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters will cover topics of interest to the aging Maui community and will appear on the third Sunday of each month.