May 13, 2016

Six tips for healthy aging

Research provides insights into aging well, and aging at home successfully.

Call it the gray wave: according to Statistics Canada, five million Canadians are currently 65 years of age or older, and that number is expected to double in the next 25 years. By 2051, about one in every four Canadians is expected to be at least 65 years old.

With baby boomers funneling into this dramatically growing segment of the population, University of Calgary researchers and graduates are exploring how to maintain active, healthy lifestyles and (preferably) reduce the time spent in care facilities while aging – a concept called "aging in place."

1. Take a well-rounded approach to aging

When planning for your future, consider that healthy aging involves many different aspects of life. “When we talk about aging well, we’re talking about a few pillars,” says Lorraine Venturato, University of Calgary’s Gerontology Chair and associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing. “Physical activity is one. Cognitive activity is another. Social engagement is a third and physical environment is a fourth.”

2. An active lifestyle will help slow age-related challenges

Being active — and staying active — is key to successfully aging in place, says Albi Sole, BA’97, MSc’08, executive director of the Outdoor Council of Canada and UCalgary alumnus.

“People need to maintain their functional mobility," Sole says. "When you use lose functional mobility, you lose independence. You can’t go to the store to get milk. You can’t clean your house. You become a dependent and you can’t stay in your place.”

If you can’t easily get out of your house, your social circle gets smaller, says Judith Hanson, a nursing instructor at the University of Calgary. And if your social circle gets smaller, you’re more likely to feel lonely and depressed. And if you get depressed, you’re likely to withdraw further from the world. It’s a bad cycle at any age, say experts.



Making things worse is that many seniors can’t drive safely anymore, and public transportation isn’t always a safe option either. “Public transportation can be challenging for seniors because they may not be able to get to the bus if they use a walker,” says Hanson. “And it’s expensive to take taxis.”

“If we don’t seriously address active transportation as part of an aging in place strategy for a city, then we’re missing a big part of the equation,” Sole says. “If you are active, you will enjoy better physical health and better mental health, throughout your entire life.”

3. Reach out to friends and family

According to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, roughly 20 per cent of older Canadians report feeling lonely. Yet research shows that loneliness isn’t good for us, at any age. It can lead to higher rates of depression, obesity, cardiovascular and heart ailments, and it can suppress the body’s natural immune system.

“If you’re not socially engaged," says Venturato, "you can be isolated, which can lead to withdrawal from physical activity and cognitive decline, too.”



4. Move away from the idea of traditional seniors' homes

Venturato recommends moving away from the idea of old-school seniors’ homes. “We’re starting to see these integrated, intergenerational communities that are elder-friendly and supportive for older people," she says. "They also include childcare, parks for walking, coffee shops and businesses that bring people into the neighbourhood.

“People who are now in their 50s and 60s will want things when they’re older that are quite different from what is currently available for older people. It’s about responding to some of the trends we see in society as a whole.”

Developers that specialize in seniors’ housing are paying attention. They’re creating buildings that cater to those who expect just a little more from life. Wi-Fi, for example, and proximity to things like good coffee shops.

Calgary architect John Brown, dean of UCalgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS), is leading a group of 11 graduate students who are working on an innovative garden loft project for seniors. The test home is currently located inside the EVDS faculty and features a slew of features that look good and are useful, too.

The table slides to make room for a wheelchair, yet it locks easily into place. An illuminated toe kick panel in the kitchen stays on at night, so your eyes don’t have to adjust if you get up in the middle of the night. If you need extra support when walking, a long railing lets you move easily from kitchen to bedroom.

“The whole home will be somewhat like a Fitbit, keeping track of a person’s health.”

A built-in scale in the bathroom floor allows medical staff to see if your weight fluctuates drastically from day to day — a potential sign of illness. And monitors will report unusual movements — or lack of movement. If you fail to get out of bed on a particular day, an alarm could potentially be activated for your healthcare provider. “We want to create a purpose-built residence for the aging community,” Brown says. “The whole home will be somewhat like a Fitbit, keeping track of a person’s health.”

Testing of the first prototype is underway now, with senior volunteers, realtors and home builders acting as test subjects. Using the results of the testing, a second prototype was completed in April 2016. “By this time next year, we hope to be testing it (as a home) for a real person,” Brown says.

The idea is that these small homes would be relatively affordable and easy to build in the back yard of a typical residential lot. And they’ll be beautifully designed and practical, too. Brown doesn’t know yet what the finished product will cost, or when it will be done.

But, judging by the interest he has had in it from across the city, people want to know more.

“Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a nice home,” he says.

5. Support senior-friendly initiatives within your city

Clean sidewalks with cutaway curbs. Restaurant chairs with arms. Elevator doors that close slowly. Well-marked public toilets and well-designed parks. Walk signals that don’t change too quickly at intersections. These are just some of the things that help create an elder-friendly city, says Venturato.

“We don’t understand how difficult it can be for an older person to just get up off a park bench or out of a restaurant chair if it doesn’t have arms.”

“We don’t understand how difficult it can be for an older person to just get up off a park bench or out of a restaurant chair if it doesn’t have arms,” she says.

Venturato developed and tested a partnership model in Australia, to bridge research, education and practice in care of older adults. And some changes — curb cutaways, for example — don’t just benefit older people, she says. Parents with strollers, people in wheelchairs, and young children all benefit, too. “These changes aren’t just about older people. They’re generally good for all of society.”

6. Not yet a senior? You may want to start planning now

Many of us save money for our retirement, but planning for your physical and social environment in retirement is just as important, Venturato says. “If you’re thinking about your pension plan, you should also be thinking about whether you’ll be physically and socially ready, too. They should all go together.

“People often don’t think about their physical environment until they’re experiencing problems, but you can do a lot of planning early. Are you going to want a house with a lot of levels in it when you’re looking at retirement?"


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Dr. Lorraine Venturato, PhD, is associate professor with a Chair in Gerontology at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing. Her research interests include gerontological workforce development, culture change and practice development, models of care for frail older people, care of people with dementia and qualitative research approaches. Find a listing of Venturato's research here.

Dr. John Brown, PhD, is dean and a professor of architecture with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design. His research interests include housing, aging-in-place, and architectural entrepreneurship. John is a registered architect and a founding principal of the architectural firm Housebrand. He is a recognized authority on residential practice and collaborates with medical and bio-medical engineering researchers to develop new housing options for an aging population. Learn more about John Brown

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