“Stay young while you can.”
“Everything is downhill after 60.”
“Don’t get older.”
As a physical therapist, specializing in fall prevention, I hear these comments on a daily basis. At first, I was unsure how to best respond. I found myself shaking my head in disagreement or changing the subject to a positive aspect of the day’s session. By remaining silent, I became an accomplice in perpetuating the underlying ageism. I was reinforcing the belief that youth was the pinnacle and aging was to be avoided at all costs. As I progressed in my career, I became frustrated with the frequency at which I was on the receiving end of these remarks. To gain a better understanding, I began to challenge these statements.
“Why do you feel this way?”
“If I’m not getting older, what’s the alternative?”
A common theme in the responses was loss. A loss of physical function or independence, and a feeling of failure by comparison to others. This comparison was rarely directed towards me (or other “youthful” people in the room). Almost always the comparison was with a younger version of themselves. Mourning the loss of a physical ability manifest as an aversion to any exercise deemed easy by their prior selves. Which often led to avoidance of challenging exercises and over time, an increased risk for falls.
In the physical therapy world, balance training is “neuromuscular re-education.” Training the connections between the brain and the muscles to perform a physical task. The cerebellum plays a significant role in the control of movement and balance. It requires error signals for learning to occur. An error signal happens when a movement does not go as planned, or when we fail at a task. It takes repetition, of both successful and failed attempts, to perfect a skilled movement. As children, we don’t learn to stand up and maintain balance on our first try. We didn’t give up learning to stand if we fell down. We also didn’t have a prior set of abilities from an earlier self to use as a comparison. Throughout our lifespan, we must learn to interact with gravity, our environments, and our ever-changing bodies. Growth requires the continual development of new skills— balance is one of the most important.
Often in physical therapy, we will compare someone’s current status to a prior level of function. Does a focus on restoration of past abilities reinforce the ageist idea that aging equates to a loss?
What if the physical changes of aging were viewed the same across the lifespan? As an opportunity for growth versus a need to restore something lost? To focus on learning new skills in a body that is continuously changing rather than comparing and mourning the loss of a past version of ourselves? As our bodies age, we must learn to adapt, and that is not something that should elicit shame. Aging in itself is not a disease or disability that we must recover from!
I now incorporate activities that focus on learning new skills or movement strategies into my treatment sessions. I no longer solely work to obtain skills that have been “lost.” For example, instead of instruction to stand on one leg for 5 seconds, I incorporate standing on one leg into a yoga posture, a tai chi sequence, or stepping over a hurdle. Or rather than running, performing a running type movement on a trampoline while holding on for support. People who were the quickest to give up or doubt themselves became more patient with their progress in these new situations. We are often much more forgiving of our mistakes when trying something new for the first time. Failure is an integral step in gaining a new skill. A greater understanding of this fosters interest in working towards continual growth and improvement rather than avoiding the activities that challenge us.
Rather than continually comparing our physical capabilities to past versions of ourselves, let’s work to shift our focus to celebrate the way our bodies are able to adapt during all stages of aging. Let’s also remember that exercise should be used to enhance participation in life, not just athletic performance or personal aesthetics.
“Don’t get older”?
That is not an option. We are all getting older. Let’s acknowledge that and do a better job of getting older together.
Emily Karbaum says
Hi Laura, I am an AGNG320 Student at the Erickson School of Aging. I really enjoyed your post. I like how you highlight the importance of recognizing that aging is inevitable, yet that aging does not always correlate to loss. Also, I agree that as we age, we should try to view our ever-changing bodies as a way to continue to develop and learn rather than to mourn and compare these changes to our previous selves. The topic you discussed in this post closely relates to the concepts we have learned about in our AGNG320 class, such as the importance of empowering older adults. For example, empowering older adults through active communication and positive language could help a client overcome negative self-images that are a barrier towards their future development and adaptation to the physical changes of aging. In addition, your approach to teaching your clients through the use of activities that focus on learning new skills is a great way to empower older adults. Your approach encourages older adults to embrace their current physical capabilities and continue to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. Overall, I agree that a more optimistic and positive view of aging could improve both the physical and mental health of people as they age. Thank you for a great post.
Ryan Church says
Hey Laura! Thanks for the awesome post! I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I found your post really interesting and it gave me a new way of thinking. By putting people into situations that they have never been in they will doubt/blame themselves less since they have never experienced it before. This way they will make the effort to getting better at the situation and adapt as best they can. Also, by introducing new intuitive ways to exercise, the people in your class will push themselves and stay more motivated since they are learning something new. With some motivation and exercises that focus on the key elements of why we fall, you should be able to drastically decrease the amount of times people fall as they age. In our class we learned about the dangers of falling and how it can affect your body as you age. It is definitely important to stay on top of because it is one of the highest causes of hospitalization in the elder population. Also we learned about how necessary some form of motivation and rewards are, and they will get this through learning new tasks. It’s like when you first learn to ride a bike or play a new sport; you always want to keep practicing and getting better. On top of all this, any form of exercise that will increase their strength and overall health, will help them live a longer more prosperous life. Thanks again for the awesome post.
Kanwarpall Singh says
I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I thought this article was extremely well-written and provides a view that is very distinctive. Aging is inevitable. As a student, I have elders explain to me all the time how they would love to revisit their “teen years” so that they could possibly do things a bit different, which may have an impact on their respective life now as they approach an older age. That simply cannot be done. What can be done, however, is to simply respect and appreciate what life has to offer. Using an existential model, understanding that learning can be achieved at any age is extremely important and can serve as a reinforcer of positivity and growth. Adaptation is important to serve as another reminder to embrace change rather than to let it impact an individual emotionally. Incorporating new skills can not only be refreshing, but can be fun as well. Understanding, like you said, to embrace failure is a great way of pushing yourself to new heights. As my mother emphasizes, when something gets difficult, embrace the struggle, as it serves as a reminder of growth through oneself.
Haber, D. (2016). Health promotion and aging: Practical applications for health professionals.
New York, NY:Springer Publishing, LLC.
Fang Fang says
I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I truly appreciate the inspirational perspective on aging. As you grow older you become more fragile and prone to falling. This leads to anxiety and a loss of confidence. Incorporating this engaging and carefree attitude and exercises can help alleviate the negative stigmas of aging and give older people a better quality of life. Changing someone’s perspective changes their entire mindset and they will be able to see more options. They will be able to see the other aging challenges as a obstacle to overcome and keep trying to improve their life. Also exercises such as tai chi are important because they help improve body coordination and balance. This can prevent or decrease the likelihood of falling. The combination of these two can lead older people to be more confident and age healthier. This will lead people to see happier older people and create a better attitude to aging.
I’m an AGNG 320 student at UMBC’s Erickson School of Aging. I really like the writing style in your article and your approach to the problem is a very creative and refreshing. As a student in an Aging class, this seems to be a prevalent issue when we discuss the difficulties that older adults deal with. I completely agree with you in that we should not just mourn the loss of our physical limitations as we get older but we should accept that these changes will happen and take the necessary steps to live with them in the most successful way possible. From other class discussions, I’ve learned about the importance of exercise in older adults and how the added mobility can benefit them in reducing their number of falls and accidents. It may be difficult to get started with the exercise due to old age and lack of mobility at the start but that only gets easier with repetition like you said. I completely agree with you that instead of living in the past and constantly comparing ourselves to what was, we need to accept what is and move forward accordingly.
Hello I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I wholeheartedly agree on the final statement that aging is not an option. Many people including relatives of my own often speak of a time when they were younger and more physically successful and how they wish to return to it; however, that simply isn’t the reality of it. Time cannot be reversed so the only way to go is to move forward and learn and keep growing. We have always learned to adapt, we constantly had to do it when we were young, so why should we have a problem with that when we get older? As we get older and obtain more experience we should be more disciplined to know that any goal require effort, and successful aging is no different. 20 years from now, our aging population will have doubled to 14% as of 2009 (Haber, 2016), this means that the philosophy that people must adapt in order to live more satisfied will matter increasingly more within the next two decades.
Chelsey Jackson says
I am a student at the Erickson School of Aging. I agree with everything you have said in this post. Older adults may have loss somethings throughout their ageing, that does not mean they should carry the burden of that thought around. There are so many organizations and programs that can help with functioning and just life in general for older adults. They have endured so much through life and have not given up and should not give up now. They should not let anyone’s thoughts or opinions discourage them from living their lives and being resilient when they are faced with challenges.When individuals build their self-efficacy, there a likelihood that they will sustain new health behaviors (Haber, 2016). This may help with individuals falling and getting back up. It may help individual’s feels less discouraged while facing the challenges. It is also important for these individuals to have more social and even environmental support (Haber, 2016). It is important individuals keep those that are compassionate and supportive around them. As for their environmental, they want to make sure they put themselves in environments that encourage the right support and feed their self-efficacy. If individuals do not have access and they feel overwhelmed or just discouraged, they can try relaxation techniques. There is meditation, which actually reduces they gray matter in the brain that is associated with old age. It can also help with cortical thinning (Haber, 2016).
Brittany Harris says
My name is Brittany, and I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. First of all, I love your writing. I consider that all the information related to the fall preventions in older adults is necessary for all health professionals who regularly deal with seniors. Mainly because, as we know, falls are a widespread problem when a person ages. Above all, this topic is vital because it helps us understand that life does not end once we get old. There are always strategies to improve our mobility and our health, such as physical therapy. This is particularly important because through this type of treatments older adults will not continue to crave a ‘younger version of themselves’ but, on the contrary, they will learn to accept and lead a full life assuming their age. Especially when there are also other types of treatment alternatives, such as yoga positions and tai chi exercises mentioned in this blog post.
This type of content is related to many concepts that I have studied in class. We can observe the design of an effective exercise plan for patients that also takes into account their unique needs. Besides, all information related to fall prevention is more than necessary for any student whose goal is to provide well-being in the lives of older adults. Thank you for your post Laura.
Marissa O'Connor says
I am an AGNG 320 student in the Erickson School of Aging. I agree with the content of this post, because I think that the negative mindset that people have about aging needs to be changed. While many believe that aging has a physical toll on the body, and they should give up and accept that they are old and can’t do as much, I think people forget the other belief that the older you are, the wiser you are due to experience. I think that we should emphasize that older people are wiser and have more experience, therefore they shouldn’t give up and stop growing. If anything, they need to continue gaining knowledge and experience, which includes learning new exercises and skills.
We learned in our textbook that yoga and tai-chi have positive effects such as improving balance and coordination, reducing stress, improving range of mobility, and helps with sleeping. As Ms.Dean mentions introducing tai chi or yoga with her patients, we have learned the benefits of them, in addition to her idea of learning new things will help patients mentally be more confident in their abilities.
Haber, D. (2016). Health promotion and aging: Practical applications for health professionals.
New York, NY:Springer Publishing, LLC.
I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. Fall prevention is a very important topic to be discussed about. I like your approach of incorporating new skills or movement in your physical therapy treatment. Introducing new exercise regimes helps to keep the elderly more engaged and motivated, which in return makes the overall experience successful. In my course, I have learned that with age people tend to believe that their functionality will decline. Due to this sort of thinking they begin to give up on themselves. It is very important to remember as we age that there will be many changes that will take place. Instead of being mentally upset about loss of function, it is crucial to adapt to these changes and work around them through being active and learning the new capabilities. Fall related injuries can be prevented if certain lifestyle changes are learned and practiced regularly. Once the elderly witness the benefits of these changes they are more likely to continue to better their health and feel good about themselves and not compare their condition with their past.
I am an AGNG 320 student from UMBC Erickson School of Aging. This topic has been a topic that I’ve written about many times in class. It’s a topic that really catches my attention because I have a grandmother that I live with and I try to prevent her from many falls which happens to be a number one reason why elders go to the emergency room. I’ve tried to prevent falls by putting a mat in the bathtub and making sure that when she’s in the kitchen the floor has no spills.
I agree with your method of preventing falls by making mistakes. Working to restore rather than working on skills that have been lost is a great idea. An elder would probably give up trying to restore a skill that they list because they’ve lost it, instead creating new exercises would give them more encouragement because its something new and they haven’t done it before so they won’t feel discouraged. Explaining the exercise to them and being supportive will only allow them to feel confident in what they are doing. I think all facilities should adopt this approach and ways to prevent falls.
As a student in AGNG320 we have learned that far too often when people start getting older they give up on trying to stay in top shape. People tell them their old now so they should be broken and then those people start to believe it. While it is important to remember we may not be able to run as fast or jump as high as we did in our twenties it doesn’t mean life is over and we should just sit around all day. by pushing yourself you can learn your bodies limitations which can also lead to a lesser risk of injury. Also if we continue to tell elderly people that they are old and frail they will believe it and that results in more injury as well.
I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I know the importance of working on this issue, and I think this is a creative way to approach the issue. I like the idea of learning more instead of just simply restoring function. Trying these new exercises could also keep someone more engaged and motivated. I also agree with trying to adapt to age rather than be disappointed by any loss of function. These are great ways to mentally and physically teach someone to prevent future falls. Throughout my course, I have learned about falls causing injury in the elderly. They are a leading cause of hospital visits in older adults and can also lead to some people becoming more “worried” about future falls (Haber, 2016). I have also learned in class the importance of exercise, and avoiding “relapse.” As you said, people should attempt to improve their fitness and mobility rather than avoiding any activity that used to be easier to them. This may take repetition and mistakes, but it can be effective. I agree that older adults should celebrate their bodies/lives instead of feeling down due to the effects of aging.
Haber, D., PhD. (2016). Health Promotion and Aging, Seventh Edition, 7th Edition. [Chegg]. Retrieved from https://ereader.chegg.com/#/books/9780826131898/
Glenna Wilder says
This is a refreshing point of view from a PT standpoint, but can be extrapolated to many other kinds of challenges/changes in the aging journey. Rather than looking in the rearview mirror at what has been lost, look forward with a focus on learning new skills. Thanks for sharing!