Healthy Aging Matters—at Any Age

My grandmother, Dorothy Main, lived to age 95, and she was on the move for nearly all of that time. In her Hillsboro retirement community, a bus was always leaving to take residents to activities around town. More often than not, my grandmother was on it.

Lectures. Concerts. Fishing trips and restaurants. Even a visit to a llama farm. Despite her painful arthritis, my grandmother stayed game for anything.

She had already lost her husband, my grandfather. Every week, it seemed, she lost another close friend. But instead of withdrawing, she sought out connections to other people and places. I believe this social connectedness is what kept her alive, and relatively healthy, for so long. Research backs me up, connecting a larger social network to a lower risk of premature death.

Karen and her grandmother Dorothy take in a baseball game with Bullwinkle

As she aged, Dorothy never became invisible. That’s a major achievement, given that so many of the places we live, work and play are designed as if older people and their needs don’t exist.

This is a shame—for older people and for all of us. When older adults encounter barriers to engaging in our communities, we all miss out. We all know older people whose skills, experience and wisdom have improved—and continue to enrich—our neighborhoods and schools; our workplaces and economy; our government and politics. By failing to support and enable the many contributions that older adults make, we do more than diminish them. We deprive our communities of tremendous resources.

Too many people in Oregon don’t grow old like my grandmother Dorothy—reasonably healthy, happy and engaged with the world around them. It shouldn’t be so hard to do. Yet it takes tremendous physical, mental, emotional and financial resources to overcome the barriers to healthy aging present in our society.

The most obvious barriers are built into the design of our homes, cities and towns. It’s difficult to get out of your apartment or house and participate in the community when you can no longer drive. It’s no wonder that among adults age 65 and over, one in six reports feeling isolated, either socially or geographically.

It’s even tougher to stay socially connected, or meet basic needs like getting to a doctor’s appointment or grocery store, in rural areas, where public transit and other support services may be scarce or nonexistent. Even a stroll to the corner store is treacherous, if the sidewalks are uneven and your walker gets caught in the cracks.

There are less tangible obstacles to healthy aging, too, that can arise as early as childhood. A lack of access to healthy food, physical activity, immunizations, clean air or safe water (or a combination of these) during early or midlife can influence whether or not a person can grow older in a healthy manner, free of chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. In Oregon, 79% of adults 65 years or older are living with at least one chronic disease, and 44% are living with two or more.

Given these structural and systemic challenges to healthy aging, it must feel easier for many older adults to simply stay home, disconnect and disappear.

By 2050, the number of Oregon adults over 65 will more than double. We can start now to do better for our grandparents, our parents and ourselves. Like any barriers in our society, we can remove the obstacles to healthy aging that people in Oregon face—if we commit as a community to addressing them.

The proof is in places like Bridge Meadows in North Portland. This multigenerational housing development is reducing social isolation among older adults and providing affordable housing, while improving the lives of younger families raising foster children. It’s an inspiring example of how safer, healthier, age-friendly communities help people in Oregon of all ages. Check out the video above, and see for yourself.

The websites for AARP Oregon and Age-Friendly Portland and Multnomah County feature resources and entry points for making our communities more age-friendly. For people engaged in health promotion and disease prevention, Oregon State University Extension Service provides a range of Healthy Aging resources, and Portland State University’s Institute on Aging offers tools specifically for working with older adults with behavioral health needs.

I hope you’ll check out these resources and consider how you might get involved. Everyone benefits when Oregon supports more multigenerational communities like Bridge Meadows. Whether you’re 25, 45 or 65, we all have a stake in creating similar places and expanding the opportunities for people in Oregon to age in a healthy way.

After all, we’re all getting older—every day.

Curious about a chronic disease topic youd like to see covered here? Interested in writing a guest blog? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below. 

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