Oct. 29, 2001 -- Yetta H. Appel, DSW, has been through treatment for colon cancer, a broken leg, and cataract surgery. She nursed her husband, Hy, through Parkinson's disease until his death. None of these recent events kept her from celebrating her 78th birthday in Lithuania, during a trip to honor people who'd aided Jews during the Holocaust.
"Because I was a social worker for many years, I've developed a knack for relating to people," she says. "I try to reach out to people on my block. I recognize what's meaningful to them; I remember their birthdays. In response, they include me in their lives. As we age, it's important to stay interested in others."
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Until reaching mandatory retirement at age 70, Appel was a professor of social work at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
All of us grow older every day. But people like Appel seem to have a knack for graceful aging. What is their secret?
Maintain Social Connections
It's important to stay engaged with others, says Jessie C. Gruman, PhD, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Health in Washington, D.C.
"When someone retires from the workforce, and their children move away, they may not have the social stimulation that comes routinely with employment and an active family life," Gruman tells WebMD. "It's important to recognize this potential problem and to take steps to stay socially and mentally engaged. Read the newspaper. Read books. Put yourself in a position where you're continually challenged."
Maintaining social connections has an important effect on quality of life, agrees Laura Mosqueda, MD, director of geriatrics and associate professor of family medicine at the University of California in Irvine. "People can reach out to form new relationships by volunteering, or pursuing special interests and hobbies, or exploring activities at local senior centers," she tells WebMD.
It's important to recognize that depression is not a normal part of aging. "It's normal to grieve after a loss, but it's not normal to feel sad all the time," Mosqueda says. "In older adults depression may manifest as irritability, memory loss, or social withdrawal. Clinical depression is an illness that can and should be treated."
Gruman predicts that we're on the cusp of a dramatic change in our expectations about the aging process. "The baby boomers have no intention of going gentle into that good night. They expect and hope to stay extremely active until one day they wake up dead," she says. In the past, a gradual decline in activity was the "culturally accepted norm," Gruman adds -- but the baby boomers aren't likely to accept this. She expects this computer-adapted generation to find new ways to overcome physical limitations and social isolation.