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At What Age Is It Alright to Act Old?

What is too old? Perhaps it time to tell the 75 year-old that if she wants to live a strong and healthy life into her 90's, she better stop acting her age now.
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At a museum where I volunteer, a group of women and a handful of men came for a talk and a tour. They live in a retirement community, and ranged in age from their early seventies to mid-eighties. Most had difficulty walking, and gratefully sat down, even though they had been on a bus for two hours (traffic was bad). After hearing a talk and watching a video, many continued to sit even though visiting the exhibits required walking. The few who did stroll around the museum were conspicuous in their relative vigor despite, judging from their appearance, they did not look any younger than the rest of the group. Ninety minutes later, they climbed back on the bus, happy to be going off to lunch.

The reluctance of most of the group to walk around the museum they had come to visit may be typical of this age group. A review article by Drewnowski and Evans in the Journal of Gerontology pointed out that people 65 years of age and older significantly reduce the time they spend in voluntary physical activity. Some in this age group are unable to do any activity that requires muscular strength, such as getting up from a chair, carrying small items like dishes, or dressing themselves. Clearly the museum visitors have not fallen into dependency on others to assist them in what is called the activities of daily living, but if they had been forced to leave the museum quickly, say because of a fire alarm, I doubt most would have been able to walk, even in that circumstance, sufficiently fast enough to be safe.

Many of us take for granted that if we reach our ninth decade or even our eighth, we will be in a sense physically shackled by the decline of our bodies. And it is true that people who engaged in recreational sports such as skiing, tennis, running or biking when younger decide that they are too physically slow, their bones too fragile, their balance too uncertain to continue as they age. Indeed, I once had a weight-loss client who told me with great seriousness that, as she was soon to be forty, she was too old to exercise.

But does old age mean resigning oneself to a life of increasing frailty and limited mobility? Certainly joint and muscle pain or neurological degenerative diseases like Parkinson's disease make movement difficult and often painful. But, as Drewnowski and Evans point out, the answer is no for the healthy elderly. If they engage in physical activities that improve muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility, they would find themselves walking more easily with improved balance and endurance. They would also decrease their risk of falling and fracturing their bones.

I wonder if people in this age group, like the museum visitors, consider themselves too old to be more physically fit? Perhaps they believe this, in part, because others reinforce that attitude by making it too easy for them to avoid walking or standing. When I asked one of the museum staff people why the visitors should be sitting for an hour of lecture and video after being on the bus for two hours, her reply was, "They are old. Let them sit." Would she have said that if Jane Fonda,who is about to be 78, were in the group?

Do we make people behave old just because their age puts them in that category? Are we telling people that once they receive Social Security and Medicare, they can accept the inevitable deterioration of their bodies and should stop trying to slow it down by physical activity? Do we tell them, 'You are old, so act your age!'?

And if they believe that they have the right to sit their way through their eighties, how are they going to fare as if they get into their nineties? If they enjoy reasonably good health now, they can expect to become part of the fastest growing group in the country--the 'oldest old.' The cohort of people 85 years of age and older is expected to triple between now and 2030. But if people 5-10 years younger than the oldest old are experiencing limited mobility and endurance, how will they manage as they age without needing to be dependent on others for their needs?

One problem is the absence of role models for this age group. There are too few like Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin (76) and Morgan Freeman (78). Also, one can't go to a newsstand or bookstore and find glossy magazines featuring exercise and healthy lifestyles for the over 70 crowd. Fitness facilities ignore this age group, who may feel uncomfortable with the density of twenty-something bodies in various states of uncover working out to blaring music. Even workout clothes are designed for the cellulite-free limbs of the younger cohorts. And exercise classes are rarely designed to protect aging knees or backs. If they are, they may be almost too protective and not push the participants hard enough.

The result is acceptance and complacency. I've heard the following: "If everyone around me is complaining of aches and pains and can't walk far, or climb stairs, or lift packages, or do yoga stretches, why should I? If I go on a trip and the bus driver makes sure I don't have to walk more than a few yards to a restaurant and I can sit down at the museum, why should I exert myself? I am too old."

What is too old? Perhaps it time to tell the 75 year-old that if she wants to live a strong and healthy life into her 90's, she better stop acting her age now.