What to expect when you're aging
May 23, 2019 4:19 PM   Subscribe

As I age into my retirement years (I'll turn 65 by the end of the year), I'm finding that there's a lot of adjustments involved. I could really use some help knowing what to expect and what challenges I'll confront as this happens. I don't really have people in my social circle I could ask about that. But I think of you folks as solons who have so much wisdom to share if I can only ask the question precisely enough.

I've been paying attention to the work and money aspects of this for a long time, and that's well in hand. And the existential/psychological aspects aren't really a problem either, because "how do I find meaning in retirement" has been a primary topic of thought and discussion and I know I'll work it out. But what about the physical and social aspects? I could really use some help there, at least finding out about what sorts of surprises might be lurking out there for me, what I just need to accept graciously as a natural part of aging, and ways to combat the effects of X, should I choose to do so. So, wonderful men and women of Metafilter, what advice do you have to give? What sorts of things did you learn the hard way? What surprised you, or caused you to look at things totally differently in ways you never suspected? Please share your wisdom.
posted by DrGail to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
My grandparents bought a condo that had seven outside steps. Eventually they could not climb those steps and there was no room for a ramp. My mother eventually couldn’t climb the interior stairs and there was not room for one of those little rising chairs. Think about steps.
posted by kerf at 4:56 PM on May 23, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'm 72. Of course, there is no one right answer to your question. Here are some of my observations.

If you have been on a 9-5, 5 day-a-week work schedule, you are going to start learning about the rhythms of your local area. When are the grocery stores well stocked, when are they crowded. Are the road jammed with school buses from 2:30 to 3:30? Etc, etc. You are also going to have to summon up some motivation and discipline that were formerly a part of your work life.

Many people find something organized to do in retirement. My parents volunteer at a hospital and a library. A friend did photography for a mayoral campaign, and continues to take pictures for the mayor. We have a local organization called Lifetime Learners that organizes "courses" and lectures at a local community college.

You start to think that, sooner or later, someone is going to have to clear out your house, and how you wouldn't wish that on your children. So you try to get rid of any and everything that you don't use any more.

As kerf pointed out, you start to think about steps, about handholds in the shower, etc, not because you need them now, but because maybe it will help you stay in your home longer.

Many people travel, though not me. Visiting distant grandchildren is a common excuse, but also going to see that place you always wanted to see for yourself, whether it's Mount Rushmore or the Taj Mahal.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:40 PM on May 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

My biggest concern from watching my grandmother at 95 is to avoid becoming frail, and avoid falling. She has fallen a few times over the years, and with each fall became more fearful, less active and less strong. She can barely get out of her chair now and it is one of the biggest factors impacting her quality of life.

When I realized it was getting harder for me to get up off the floor, I started making a point to get down there on a regular basis and get myself back up, just so I don't lose the ability. I also bought a BOSU and use it for practicing balance. As you get older continue to do whatever exercise you can safely do. Pay attention to strength-building as well as aerobic exercise.

But be careful of falls. Don't let vanity take precedence over safety. If you need a cane for balance, use one. Wear the ugly special shoes if you need them. Wear the life alert thing. Install a handrail in the shower. Whatever you need to do so that you don't fall, and don't get fearful of moving around.

Also, protect your hearing. If you live to be very old, it often just "wears out". I find myself worrying about loud noises now, from a hearing-damage perspective. I avoid using those high-powered hand dryers in restrooms because they are crazy loud. If there are no towels I wipe my hands on my pants like a savage. I always carry a set of ear plugs with me to the movies because the volume on the previews is INSANE these days.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:48 PM on May 23, 2019 [13 favorites]

I'm ageing, 75 now, and likewise looking to see what the future for me might be. One thing I've found very helpful is volunteering with a local organization that helps the elderly; something like (but not) Meals on Wheels. That has let me make friends with people much older than I am, and learn what they need.

Apart from financial considerations (how to live with just retirement income) my focus is on exercise. Keeping my body working well seems a really important investment for my future so I do tai chi, various exercises, lots of walking, and eat healthily.

I appreciate and echo all the advice above.
posted by anadem at 8:23 PM on May 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

So here is another thing I notice about my grandmother that bothers me: people treat her literally like a child now. The last time I visited her, some other relatives were there and every time my grandmother spoke they laughed uproariously, like "isn't she darling with her big serious opinions?"
Like when a three-year-old says something precocious. Grandma was getting pretty annoyed but they thought that was adorable too.

My aunt (her daughter) often talks about her as if she is a naughty child. When she doesn't want to do something or tries to have her own way it is laughed off as a "power struggle", as if a grown woman should not have any say in how her own hair is styled or where she wants to eat her supper.

Her mind is still pretty good in spite of some minor memory issues, but you wouldn't know it the way people act around her. It's infuriating.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:42 PM on May 23, 2019 [21 favorites]

  • Prioritize sleep and revel in your ability to wake up naturally instead of using an alarm.
  • Start an indexed bullet notebook where you collect all the random bits of information that are getting harder to recall, like other people's shoe sizes and the type of cartridge your printer takes.
  • Don't reflexively say either yes or no to the many requests for your time that you'll receive.
  • Get a car with modern safety features, like monitoring the blind spots, sooner than you think you need it.

  • posted by carmicha at 8:42 PM on May 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

    Oh, and one more thing about your health: take care of your bone health. Get the scan, take the medicine or whatever you have to do to keep your bones healthy. My mom lost a good six inches of height in her sixties due to osteoporosis, and her bones were so weak she broke her ankle just getting up out of a chair.
    posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:44 PM on May 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

    Stairs stairs and more stairs; and leaning to walk like a crab sideways on them. Hello grabrail. That; and the wtf stare at item on the lower shelves at the grocery. OMG; I'm gonna have to bend down or use my knees to get that? WTF.
    I H8 crap like that; and it is only going to get worse. OTOH; in another five years Amazon etc will deliver about anything I need that is canned/dry good from the grocery; so BFD.
    But the knees, the knees, the knees. That will have to wait for miracle stem cell/hydraulic stuff to happen. ":/
    posted by Afghan Stan at 8:46 PM on May 23, 2019

    I work in a hospital, so I have a rather skewed view of what growing older looks like. I'm get to meet a large number of unwell elderly people, and I've begun to realise a few things:

    As you grow older, you can't really take your body for granted any more. Health in the elderly is a lot about the ability to cope with significant illnesses and stresses on the body. If the average teenager gets a pneumonia, they'll feel rough for a few days and get better with some tablets. The same pneumonia in a frail, elderly person with other health problems will require hospitalisation, intravenous antibiotics, fluids, oxygen, respiratory support, and might well be fatal. Fortunately there's several things you can do to maintain your ability to cope with illness. Avoiding smoking, excess alcohol, excess food, and excess body weight will help. Crucially the body adapts to the stresses placed upon it - if you exercise regularly, your ability to cope with physiological stressors increases.

    Keeping physically fit will help prevent many illnesses, but it will also make it easier to cope with unavoidable diseases. If you're unlucky enough to develop a cancer, for example, being otherwise fit and healthy will make any surgery or chemo easier to cope with. You'll likely spend less time in hospital, develop fewer complications (ie post-operative infections, heart attacks, etc), and cope better with any complications.

    A perfect example of this is the broken hip. Its a common injury in older people, and is potentially disastrous. I've seen fit and well people in their 70s who fell and broke their hip whilst out jogging. They got their hip replacement, were back on their feet within a few days, and back living their life very quickly. I've seen people in their 70s who are frail, have poor lung function due to smoking, and poor muscle mass due to inactivity, who've fallen and broken their hips. They do badly after hip replacement, spend longer in bed, get chest infections and heart attacks and strokes, and have a high chance of dying.

    My parents are around your age, and are generally healthy. The best thing they both did when they retired was join a gym, dad goes to lift weights, mum goes to pilates. They maintain their muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness, and balance.

    A final note on the end of life. Someone's 'ideal' death is often passing peacefully in their sleep, surrounded by their loved ones. Or in a comfortable hospice, not feeling any pain, with the chance to say goodbye. However the reality of how most people die is the opposite: in hospital, surrounded by strangers, confused, distressed, in pain, connected to ventilators, or undergoing CPR. The disparity between what people want and what people get is driven by the default assumption in the healthcare system - maintain life regardless of the suffering it causes.

    The fundemental issue is one of capacity, the ability to make decisions about your own care. Many people lack capacity toward the end of their life, and therefore the decisions have to be made by relatives or doctors. Its very difficult for people to make that decision to let their relative die peacefully, even if they can see that the current treatments are causing pain and distress. So I think its really important to do two things. First, talk to your next of kin about what you would and wouldn't want as you approach the end of your life. Second, get it down in writing - an advanced care plan, POLST form, or some other legally recognised documentation of what your limits of care are. - https://polst.org/
    posted by DrRotcod at 2:40 AM on May 24, 2019 [21 favorites]

    I'm 73 and have arthritic knees; I walk with a cane. I've learned to speak up about my needs. On Metro buses, I ask for a seat if there isn't one available up front. If library books or grocery items are too low to reach, I ask someone for help and stress my difficulties.
    posted by Carol Anne at 4:56 AM on May 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

    Exercise is not a luxury. One of the healthiest people I know is in his late 60s. He owns a gym and is a personal trainer by vocation. He has had both knees replaced at the same time, because he knew it would be tough on the remaining knee and it would need to be replaced shortly after. Having surgery and physical therapy for both knees sped up the process and didn't cause unnecessary damage to the surrounding tissue. Most people don't think like that.
    posted by domo at 7:27 AM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

    Advocate for age-friendly design in your community.

    Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, recently penned this article about how bad designs are for older people now.

    His article also has some interesting thoughts on ageing too.

    I had the experience of breaking my hip in my 50s, so I have great respect for older people who have to think about "simple" things like a possible struggle to get into a building safely! "Can I get in if go there with my walker?" It would be nice if it wasn't even a question...
    posted by rw at 1:08 PM on May 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

    At age 77 I have a few observations:
    1) There is simply no substitute for physical activity--walking, shuffling, swimming, aerobics what have you--If you are not doing it now , Start!--science, data, observation, anecdotes, research what have you unequivocally demonstrates physical activity is the single most important variable that you have control over (other than smoking/substance abuse/serious obesity) in preserving physical and cognitive well being as you age ( and yes, I swim 5 days a week with a group of age mates who shine).
    2) Maintain a reasonable/healthy weight--no more than slightly overweight--Regardless--obesity and old age are seriously compromising--need I say more.
    3) Find/create a compatible (hopefully diverse age/sex/ethnicity/etc) social group that you enjoy--spend time with them.
    4) Say no to things you do not want to do
    5) Get up and regularly leave the house in the morning-coffee with friends, exercise routine, volunteering, etc
    6) Treat intellectual stimulation as you do exercise--read, concerts,educational talks, lively conversation etc--two healthy doses per day
    7) Step away from things over which you have no control or do not wish to exercise control--
    8) If you can find meaning--other than doing for others and contributing to the community/commonweal let me know.
    Cheers and keep moving physically, cognitively and in giving/sharing
    posted by rmhsinc at 3:11 PM on May 24, 2019 [8 favorites]

    I'll give you a few things I've learned recently, as I've had to take over (with my husband) care of his mother. We went from knowing nothing to having a crash course in "old people" in a very short time. This has been a very stressful situation but we've learned a lot and maybe it will help you. The caveat here is that much of this may not apply if you don't have means - services and systems aren't really great if you aren't rich in this country (same as with everything really).

    You don't say what preparations or plans you have for how independently you want to live out the remainder of your life. That's a huge, critical question. I think many people want to live in their own home 'as along as possible' but don't really think that through too much. I used to think the same thing and of course quality will vary (here's where the being of means comes in) but it turns out that senior living/retirement homes/assisted living is... pretty great! So if you haven't considered this it might be time to take some tours. Facilities that let you start out basically having your own apartment and full freedom with increasing services as you move towards end-of-life hospice within the same place exist and are not your grandparents' Shady Acres.

    I don't now believe that staying at home when you end up cycling between your home and the hospital and skilled nursing and your home-->hospital-->skilled nursing is the best choice nor do people examine critically or plan for what that choice means. The fact is that being in your own home will be a lot of work and may likely require a lot of assistance. Who will do this? Are you expecting your children to do so? Do you expect to hire services? Do you really know how those work and how much they cost?

    Who will make the decision that you can no longer live there? Will it be you? Will you always be capable of making that decision? What if you disagree with the advice you get? I think many people reach old age or retirement with a very optimistic feeling about what the rest of their life might look like and what personal relationships they can rely on to care for them as those needs increase. I hope everyone can have that optimism but please plan as a pessimist. And have these conversations with your family and those you expect will help care for you. As we talk to our friends who have or are going through the same thing the biggest anguish is that they have no idea how to both care for their parents in the way their parents want AND keep their own sanity, family and homes intact. Marriages easily tear apart once someone has to take care of one partner's elderly parent.

    If you have a partner and the expectation is that one of you might significantly outlive the other: surprise, that might not happen so if the more fit/capable one of you dies first then what happens? Whatever plans you make, sit down at least once a year and review and potentially revise them as situations change.

    There's been great advice up-thread about keeping yourself physically fit but now is the time to attend to any lingering or unattended mental health problems. I don't mean the normal 'old age' things like Alzheimers or dementia (though of course those are considerations) I mean your garden variety depressions, bipolar or personality disorders. The aging care systems are set up to recognize and deal with old age mental declines but trying to get someone to address a long-standing mental illness at the age of 80 is nearly impossible and it will significantly influence your independence, relationships and ability to maintain relationships.

    On a very practical level:
    - you might think you're done with driving and/or traveling but DO NOT let your license or passport lapse! Turns out, those will be key to establishing your legal identity at a time when you'll be doing a lot of paperwork. So keep them renewed (or change your license to a state ID card) even if it's a pain the ass and you think you won't need them for their intended purpose
    - no one wants your shit - even if you don't officially downsize at least start to purge through your things?
    - the greatest inheritance you can give your children (if you have them) is not having to guess at your wishes, or be the recipient of assumptions you've made about what their contributions might be - talk to them, and keep talking to them
    - get professionals involved, if you can afford it - lawyers, investment advisors, home health aides, even private case management; they will save you so much time, money and stress and they've seen it ALL

    This is very cynical advice, but as a culture we shy away from these conversations and hard truths and we should talk about it more. Being able to retire and live another 20-40 years that you enjoy is a hugely positive thing and a gift and I hope we can all have it.
    posted by marylynn at 4:20 PM on May 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

    From watching my father and friends of the family after they retired:

    Do not underestimate the value of having goals and of social interactions. At work, people are used to deadlines, projects coming into fruition, being mental engaged. These are things that most people miss - A lot! Happier retired people are the ones with goals and projects they set for themselves. Be it DYI projects around the house, volunteering on a routine basis (set to a schedule), fitness goals (like races, hiking a trail, etc), knitting projects, etc etc.

    As far as social interactions, the volunteering or join an activity- related group (running, walking, crochet, etc) or joining a senior swim team helps. Be careful with talk radio, so many older people become a little too mentally involved with those angry, fear-mongering, and just plain hateful talk radio hosts. So be careful not to get stuck in a biased echo chamber.

    A lot of research has concluded that age related mental decline can be stopped, or happens at a significantly slower rate if the person stays mentally engaged. So take free Coursera classes, learn new skills, learn a new language, etc. You’ll have three mental real estate anyway since you won’t be working.

    Best of luck!
    posted by Neekee at 6:31 PM on May 25, 2019

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