VIDEO: Shifting Expectations - Staying active key for growing demographic

Published on Saturday, 5 April 2014 23:29 - Written by Coshandra Dillard

Travis Keel, 75, of Tyler, is a hero for his peers. Each week, he takes car loads of seniors to the Tyler Area Senior Center Association for fun and fellowship.

While there, they socialize while playing mind-stimulating games such as mouth and foot and 42.

“It gives them something to look forward to rather than staying in the house,” Keel said. “We just try to get people active.”

Keel, who is quick to talk about his well-rounded grandchildren, is not one to sit at home to live out his retirement years in a recliner or rocking chair. He enjoys sports, cooking and, of course, hanging out at senior centers.

“You can get old and still be young,” he said. “If you act like you’re young, you can enjoy your senior years. We shouldn’t just sit and do nothing.”

Keel’s attitude reflects a new way of looking at aging. He also represents a growing demographic. People are living longer, and seniors will comprise 20 percent of the population by 2050, compared to 13 percent today.

Some things are inevitable with aging, but staying active ensures that people can reduce physical and mental decline.

“Aging is a ‘good news, bad news’ thing,” said Dr. Tom Belt, a geriatrician at UT Health Northeast. “The bad news is getting older, to some extent, is about loss. We lose muscle strength. We lose bone strength. Our cardiovascular system performance decreases. Sometimes our brain or intellectual strength decreases. … The good thing is there are things we can do to minimize those losses.”

This includes physical exercise and socialization, Belt said.

In recent decades, the emphasis has been on active aging, rather than accepting disease and a sedentary lifestyle.

“The concepts are changing,” said Bettye McDonald Mitchell, director of Area Agency on Aging of East Texas. “In the past, when you start talking about seniors and the older population, you equated it with sickness and it had a negative connotation. Now what’s happening is we’re promoting wellness.”

A Friday conference by the Alzheimer’s Alliance of East Texas, Age of Champions, will address active aging through a documentary of the same name, panel discussions and other informational presentations. In addition to physical wellness, the conference will focus on brain health.

Nora Gravois, the Alzheimer’s Alliance’s program director, said many studies have been conducted on the connection between brain and physical health, including one at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“One of the links that has been discovered as a result of research in Alzheimer’s and dementia is the connection to overall cardiovascular health,” she said.

Among the topics discussed at the conference will be the five domains to prevent memory loss and to slow progression. They include nutrition, socialization, mental stimulation, physical activity and spirituality.

The Area Agency on Aging of East Texas, which serves a 14-county area, is one of the sponsors of the conference. Ms. Mitchell said the primary goal associated with aging is ensuring quality of life.

The agency is a go-to program for seniors who need information on nutrition, referrals, mobility assistance, exercise programs and spirituality.

“All aspects of an individual creates health,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Socialization is key to wellness for seniors. Too often, seniors experience the loss of a spouse and have no relatives nearby. Their eating habits become poor, if they eat at all. Billie Gordon, executive director at TASCA, said isolation could lead to abuse and neglect. She said TASCA is just one example of re-engaging seniors into the community.

“The first step is the hardest,” Ms. Gordon said. “For many, this is the first social experience after losing a spouse.”

She said the community should recognize and be respectful of their senior neighbors so they can make that first step.

“One of the things really needed is to work toward individuals not being isolated — to look at a new life through new relationships and new engagement in activities to help promote their healthy living after the death of a spouse or loved one,” Ms. Gordon said

That’s why Ms. Mitchell said building an aging network is critical.

“No one entity can provide everything that a senior needs,” she said. “Through collaboration, through partners, communities and government coming together, we can provide a network for older populations so they can have quality of life.”

TASCA also attracts people in their 20s and 30s because of the lively dances. There are two country-western dances each month, one ballroom dance a month, card games and plenty of exercise opportunities.

“The people who come here, they don’t seem to be old,” Ms. Gordon said. “They’re active, upbeat and positive.”