As Americans are living longer it is becoming more common for the luckiest of families to have five generations together at special occasions. What a joy!
But while multi-generational families are growing in the U.S., I've noticed that generations don't mix as much here as in some other cultures. If you go to a party in my native Iran you'll see young and old together, eating dancing and singing. In one corner you might hear a heated political debate and across the room see others playing backgammon. In the U.S. it's almost taboo for a child to attend a parent's dinner party.
What better way to encourage more intergenerational activity than through food and physical activity. Today 40 million people in the U.S. are aged 65 or older -- the nation's fastest growing demographic. These aging adults represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population and by 2030 this number is expected to increase to about 20 percent. As we live longer, we need to find strategies to make sure we also work at improving the quality of life.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2015 White House Conference on Aging and was pleased that the focus was on healthy aging and discussed from a holistic perspective. For too long those in the fields of biomedicine, socioeconomics and humanities have approached aging with a narrow lens and haven't necessarily focused on whether people were enjoying happier, more active and fulfilling lifestyles.
Social Security and Medicare have played an important role in improving the health and well-being of older Americans. But government programs can only contribute so much to longevity and active aging. The best investment you can make is to adopt healthy eating practices and embracing exercise years before you begin collecting Social Security.
And don't do this alone; include everyone in the family -- young and older. The family that eats healthy food and engages in mind and physical activities together will stay together longer. Here are five easy and fun intergenerational activities that will allow your family to age well -- and perhaps you'll be entertaining five generations at a future reunion.
1) Cook together: Discover the role nutritious foods play in reducing the risk of so many diseases. Try new recipes that use a variety of spices and herbs and feature lots of vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, and seafood -- foods scientists at the center I work at and others have discovered reduce the risk of chronic and infectious diseases in older adults. For example, compounds found in tomatoes were shown to reduce the risk of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness for people 65 and older.
2) Play together: Play a simple game of Concentration with a deck of cards. This is a great way for a young child to learn numbers and for you to enhance your memory as you match pairs of cards. Or take out the Scrabble board and play one of the best multi-generational games around. You can really impress the younger generation by taking up Wii video games -- a fun and energetic approach to play. Studies show memory loss is often slowed when older adults engage in mentally stimulating activities.
3) Walk together: Walking is a physical activity that can be adjusted to your ability and as the Surgeon General said at the White House Conference: "The best prescription for healthy aging is to be physically active and walking is an easy and fun way to stay active." We know that physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease and contributes to greater mobility that can also help prevent serious fractures or injuries from falls.
4) Volunteer together: Find a local nonprofit that needs helping hands and volunteer with a younger family member who can share the experience and be in charge of transportation. Let them know if you have any physical limitations and they'll match you with an appropriate task. Research shows the more social connections a person has, the happier and healthier they are.
5) Sing together: Studies in Finland show that older adults report being happier when singing in a community chorus. Create a family chorus with voices, young and old. Choose music that represent the richness of the generations and make singing a part of your family gatherings.
These easy ways to engage are certainly not designed exclusively for older adults. Aging begins at birth -- really even before that -- and it's best to lay the foundation early to ensure a long and robust lifestyle at 90 or perhaps 100.
As Kathy Greenlee, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging said at the White House, "We all age and we all want the same thing: to be respected, to be healthy, and to be independent." Those are wise words for all generations and there is a lot we can do to achieve it through multi/inter-generational social gatherings focused around preparing and enjoying delicious food and playing fun mental and physical games.