Latest update: September 15th, 2013
By 2015, 46 million Americans will be over the age of 65. As members of the baby boomer generation pass the traditional retirement age, our standards for aging are steadily changing.
A generation ago, the age of 40 was widely considered to be the start of middle age. In 1932, American psychologist Walter Pitkin published a self-help book titled “Life Begins at Forty,” a concept which he proclaimed, “is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.”
Pitkin was referring to the fact that the longevity which we take for granted today is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not until the start of the 20th century that the state of medical knowledge advanced to the point that the average life expectancy in Western societies was able to reach 40. He was predicting that the trend would continue, and that as time went on and we learned more about how to preserve our health, we would be able to remain fit and active far longer. A few years later in 1935, when the federal government inaugurated the Social Security program, 65 was established as a reasonable age at which point American workers would be ready for retirement. It was thought that by that point the wear and tear of daily living had taken such a toll on their health and bodies that many would no longer be able to carry out their responsibilities in their workplace.
In other words, during that era, by age 65 most people had become “old,” both physically and mentally, and were being forced by the “infirmities of age” to give up the active pursuits of their younger years.
But over the past 80 years, with the further progress of medical science, those aging standards have become obsolete. In today’s culture, the attitude is that “60 is the new 40.” Many of those now reaching the traditional retirement age of 65 no longer consider themselves to be old, and are unwilling to give up their active lifestyles.
Furthermore, there is a growing recognition that remaining physically active is one of the best ways for older people to maintain and protect their health, adding not only to their longevity, but also to the quality of their lives as they age.
Many seniors who have been sedentary throughout their adult lives have been introduced to mild daily exercise as part of their recuperation from lifesaving medical procedures. For example, walking is a mandatory part of the rehabilitation process after open-heart surgery. Cardiac bypass patients are encouraged to get up and walk within three days of the surgery. When they go home, they are told to get up and walk around for five or ten minutes every hour, and to gradually increase the length of their walks as their stamina returns.
The walking strengthens their heart, lowers their blood pressure and builds up their muscle tone. Many of these patients, to their surprise, discover that they enjoy these long walks and find them relaxing, and continue with them voluntarily long after they have fully recovered from surgery.
Recovering cardiac surgery patients are also quickly started on low-impact exercises using light weights. The physical benefits from regular, moderate exercise are well documented. They include improved appetite and digestion, weight loss, more restful sleep, and relief from many of the normal bodily aches and pains that come with aging. There are also psychological benefits from becoming more physically active, such as reduced depression, anxiety and stress, and often an overall improvement in mood and outlook.
For others, remaining fit and active in their senior years is a conscious lifestyle choice. Many members of the baby boom generation who made vigorous exercise and activities like jogging an integral part of their daily lives have refused to give these activities up as they have gotten older, and are using some of the recent advances in sports medicine to enable them to continue. By the hundreds of thousands, they are routinely replacing their worn-out knees and hip joints so that they can keep playing tennis with their friends, or running along the jogging paths in local parks each morning.
As a result, it is no longer uncommon for even quite elderly people who have remained physically fit to continue their participation in the most active of sports. For example, the 2012 New York City Marathon had 88 participants who were 75 or older. One of them was Joseph Pascarella of Brooklyn, who has run in 25 NYC marathons and is now 78. He finished the 26.2-mile-long course in 5 hours and 36 minutes. Joy Johnson, of Duluth, Minnesota, who is now 84, has run in 24 NYC marathons. She finished the race this November in 7 hours and 44 minutes.
The oldest marathon runner in the world is Fauja Singh, an Indian-born British citizen. Singh is a Sikh, and was dubbed the “Turbaned Tornado” by the British media after he took up the sport at the age of 89. Running in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2003, he set the current world record for marathoners over the age 90 by completing the course in 5 hours and 40 minutes, at the age of 92. Citing old age, Singh recently announced that he will retire from competition after running in the Hong Kong Marathon on February 24, five weeks before his 102nd birthday. However, Singh says that he will continue to run at least four hours each day in order to “inspire the masses.”
Obviously, these elderly marathon runners are in very good overall physical condition, but even seniors who are not as healthy or physically fit can and do safely enjoy and benefit from much less strenuous regular exercise.
Alan Magill, the program director at the Ateret Avot assisted living facility in Midwood, Brooklyn, says that its daily moderate exercise programs are among the most popular activities for residents, most of whom are in their 80’s and 90’s. In addition to a daily morning program of gentle stretching, Ateret Avot brings in a professional trainer twice a week to lead more focused half-hour exercise sessions, conducted separately for men and women. The exercises are designed to help the seniors avoid the danger of injury due to falls by working to maintain their sense of balance, build up their muscle tone and strength, and improve their hand-eye coordination. Some of the exercises are specifically designed to enable more physically-limited residents to participate while seated in a chair.
Other planned daily activities for residents are also designed to get them moving, sometimes in conjunction with Jewish musical entertainment. The group dynamics from joint participation yield additional benefits to the residents by strengthening their sense of community and shared experiences.
According to Magill, “they serve as social outlets, encouraging the seniors to come out of their shells. It encourages them to participate. These seniors think they know what they can do, but once they get involved, they often discover that they can do more than they think they can.
“There is also an element of mind over matter. When elderly people exercise, it releases endorphins in their brains which make them feel better. Once they start exercising regularly, their stamina improves and many of their minor aches and pains start going away. This, in turn, leads to a better overall attitude simply because they are enjoying their life more.”
Even some of the men at Ateret Avot who spend most of their time sitting and learning Torah every day are motivated to join in the exercise groups because they understand they need it to protect their health, which is also a part of their religious obligations.
One of the residents, Lillian Bernstein, who has been at Ateret Avot for five years, says she looks forward to the half hour exercise sessions every Tuesday and Thursday which make her feel “more invigorated, alive and awake.” She believes that the exercises have given her more stamina and reduced the aches and pains in her knees and waist. She particularly enjoys exercising to soft Jewish simcha music, and using isotonic exercises while sitting in a chair which build up muscles that she doesn’t often use in her upper body and arms.
Some of these programs, including the trainer-led exercise groups, are also open to seniors living in the surrounding community who wish to participate in the Ateret Avot Social Club. They are invited to sign up to come in for a few hours of activities and then return home.
There are many gyms and Jewish community centers throughout the New York area which offer reduced rate memberships for senior citizens, as well as special exercise classes designed to accommodate participants with physical limitations. In addition, there are senior citizens centers in New York City which offer various types of physical fitness activities and classes for free, or in return for a voluntary contribution.
According to Ellie Kastel, the executive director at the Boro Park Y, 500 seniors participate in all of the Y’s activities, and not just those which were designed specifically for senior citizens. Age is no limitation. She has one member who is 103 and comes to the Y regularly, twice a week, to use the swimming pool. Some of the older participants come to the Y accompanied by their home health aids.
The Y’s facilities include a gym, two pools, an exercise room, a sauna and a steam room. In addition to swimming and professionally-led exercise classes, the Y brings in specialists to speak on health topics of interest to seniors, such as cardiologists, neurologists and registered nurses. The Y’s senior center also offers a series of six lectures on nutrition.
When a senior comes to the Y for the first time, Kastel tries to help them make the best choice among its various classes and activities. For example, she will advise someone who has not been regularly exercising before not to “jump into the Zumba class,” before building up their strength and endurance by participating in some of the Y’s less physically demanding activities.
For those who are less agile, the Y offers “the circle,” a group which does chair exercises.
Kastel says that the social aspect of the exercise group is important to keep seniors coming back to participate on a regular basis. She finds that the most effective mode of advertising in the community is word of mouth, and that many of her first-time people say that they are joining the Y because “my friend is coming.”
She also says that, “65 is no longer considered old. Many of the Y’s senior members are still working full-time jobs during the day and come in to use the facilities at night. Our people at that age are still young and active.”
The Boro Park Y offers a reduced senior membership rate of $310 a year ($430 for couples). But there is another way that some people over 65 can participate in its activities and use its facilities with no out-of-pocket cost: through their Medicare benefits.
Those seniors who receive their Medicare benefits through the privately administered Medicare Advantage system have the option of choosing a plan which offers free gym membership through the “Silver Sneakers” program. Participants receive a Silver Sneakers membership card from their Medicare Advantage provider. The card gives them free access to the facilities at the Boro Park Y. Many other gyms and private fitness centers throughout New York City and the rest of the country also participate in the Silver Sneakers program.
However, not all Medicare Advantage plans provide Silver Sneakers membership. Medicare Advantage participants need to check the benefits offered by the specific plan they have chosen. Those who are now enrolled in traditional Medicare, or whose current Medicare Advantage plan does not include Silver Sneakers, can switch to a Medicare Advantage plan that does offer it during the annual Medicare enrollment period.
Kastel recommends paid Y membership, even for those who have the Silver Sneakers benefit, simply because of human nature. Being required to pay for access to an exercise facility helps to motivate people to use it more regularly than if it is available for free, and more frequent use results in getting more health benefits from it.
There are other easy ways for seniors to get into the regular exercise habit. Those living in retirement communities should check out their community room. It probably contains one or more Ninetendo Wii video game setups. These will enable them to play surprisingly accurate simulations of active sports, such as tennis or bowling, without requiring them to run around a tennis court or pick up a heavy bowling ball. While seniors won’t get the same health benefits they would from playing the actual sports, the upper body movements necessary to control the video games are physically beneficial.
Because of the popularity of this use for the Wii, Nintendo now offers a variety of accessories for the game system to simulate other sports and exercises. Microsoft has also responded by adding the Kinect accessory to its X-box 360 video game. Like the Wii, Kinect allows the user to control the game console through gestures and body movements. There is also a version of the Kinect available for use with games played on a Windows PC. Since the Kinect was introduced in late 2010, 18 million of the devices have been sold.
Despite all of these options, there are some people who still have trouble accepting the concept of older Jews committing themselves to regular daily exercise. To them, somehow, it just doesn’t seem to fit the Jewish stereotype. Those skeptics may want to check out a six-minute video on YouTube made in 2007 by the prototypical Jewish comedian, Jackie Mason, at the age of 76. In the video, Mason delivers a monologue on his views on health and exercise while walking, albeit at a slow pace, on a treadmill, apparently in his home.
So, all you readers over the age of 65: what are you waiting for?
If you belong to a Medicare Advantage plan, check to see if it offers you a free Silver Sneakers membership. Make an excuse to visit your children, and then ask your grandchildren to show you how to use a Wii or an X-Box with Kinect. Or get on the Internet, go to YouTube and let Jackie Mason talk you into it.
(Of course if you are reading this on Shabbos, please wait until after Havdallah.)
No more excuses. See you in the gym!Yaakov Kornreich
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