Today's senior citizens are taking on more activities and living seemingly healthier lives than many of their previous counterparts did. It seems that nowadays, seniors, as they prefer to be called, are out and about and are even more physically inclined than many of their grandchildren! What has caused this change, and what has it done to aging and longevity?
As the baby boomer generation has aged, they've decided they prefer to continue being active, and they are serious about it. Whether they're hiking, joining book or wine clubs, or traveling around the world logging volunteer hours, there are many activities geared toward just their demographic to make these activities even more convenient.
In addition, as this population has aged, there has been increasing emphasis on teaching and learning lifelong recreational skills. Research has shown that recreation is an important part of an individual's social behavior and that it plays a critical role in the lives of older adults by contributing to an improved quality of life. Seniors who participate in recreational activities report significantly more life satisfaction than those who do not.
According to associate professor Cynthia Carruthers, "A pleasant life is one that successfully integrates positive emotions about the present, the past, and the future." Carruthers' area of research expertise includes aging and lifestyle choices. She has been a presenter at conferences that deal with the power of positive aging and believes that seniors achieve well-being through leisure and cultivating their potential through particular contexts.
"Positive emotion or happiness supports the cultivation of personal strengths, and the use of personal strengths enhances happiness," she says. "The importance of positive emotion helps people age well and in a healthy manner. By participating in happiness, leisure, and intentional activities, seniors have a better quality of life. Leisure experiences have the potential to greatly increase positive emotion."
So just how crucial is it to your well-being to be a happy and well senior versus one who is more prone to being sad and ill? Carruthers has learned that seniors who remain open to experiences and accept the challenges of aging gracefully are more thankful for what they have and what they are able to do than those who sit around and bemoan the fact that they are getting older. "They maintain hope in life and optimism in the face of adversity," she says. "Retaining a sense of humor and your capacity for play and joy, complemented by adequate rest and retreat, is very important."
In April 2007, Del Webb Corporation, developers of the Sun City senior living concepts, conducted a survey among a select group of baby boomers and senior citizens that showed active recreation, especially adventurous pursuits such as hiking and river rafting, is emerging as a top interest for these older Americans. This challenges conventional thinking about "senior" recreation, according to the company, the nation's largest builder of active adult communities for people over age 54.
Topping the lifestyle interests were health and fitness activities, including strength training and cardio workouts, in this survey of Del Webb residents and prospective residents. Swimming, golf, and bowling topped sports, athletic, and outdoor pursuits, but surprisingly, adventure activities such as kayaking, hiking, and even hang gliding have worked their way up the scale.
For the next 20 years, experts predict we will see record numbers of baby boomers moving into active adult retirement communities. These are not nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, or government-subsidized high-rise buildings. These communities are like Disneyland for grown-ups, around-the-clock amusement parks offering a multitude of activities for the 55-plus age group.
Few baby boomers plan to grow old gracefully; they're going to fight the aging process every step of the way and enjoy life to its fullest. As a result, active adult communities are springing up all over the country, catering to the wishes of those who desire to remain young and vibrant.
"In addition to being physically active, things like maintaining old friends while cultivating new ones and trying new things and thinking new thoughts are also important," notes Carruthers. These age-restricted communities can help initiate new friendships and, with a myriad of scheduled activities, make it easier to stay healthy and fit.
Assistant Professor Jennifer Livengood teaches a course on leisure and aging that provides students with a broad overview of diverse issues regarding older adulthood. Emphasis is placed on the role of leisure in the lives of senior adults as it relates to sociological and cultural perceptions of aging; cognitive, psychological, and physiological changes during the aging process; diversity; issues related to retirement; and long-term care.
"In this class, students learn through reading, discussions, and projects to help them better understand aging as it relates to leisure," says Livengood. "For example, I give them assignments where they have to plan trips for seniors within certain parameters, conduct community research, and analyze retirement."
Livengood's course offers those interested in working with seniors helpful tools and research to better understand older generations. They are exposed to many aspects they may not have previously realized are important to this age group, including strength training, the importance of public parks, and advertising to an aging demographic.
"When people are younger and absorbed with the day-to-day functions of raising a family, building a career, and caretaking of aging parents, they often neglect the future," says Livengood. "Through my work, I hope to help them realize that by serving, contributing, and continuing to grow, they can face the future with excitement for new challenges and opportunities."
"Taking sustenance from the past but living in the day is crucial," agrees Carruthers. "Older individuals may continue involvement in many of their leisure activities up to age 75 plus. Acceptance of one's life as having been well lived; having been lived to the best of one's ability; and having been lived fully with honesty, fairness, and self-respect will help people come to terms, be at peace, and put their life events in perspective."