Stay Active – Age Well
Older people are challenging the stereotypical image of pensioners, says Dr Cassandra Phoenix.
1 in 6 Over 60
We live in a society that is undergoing a dramatic demographic change. As 11 million post-war baby boomers march towards retirement, more than one in six people in the UK are aged over 65. In less than 30 years it will be one in four.
Combined with changes in social convention, such as smaller families and couples having children later in life, we’re experiencing a significant shift in the makeup of our communities.
Inactive Lifestyles Detrimental
Like much of the population, older adults often live inactive lifestyles and this can have a detrimental effect on their health and wellbeing. Add to this a swathe of negative stereotypes about what can and can’t be done in older age – and the use of words like ‘burden’ and ‘care crisis’ – and older people could be forgiven for thinking they’ve already been condemned to the scrap heap.
As we increasingly see growing older as something to fear rather than embrace, we’re confronted with a period in our lives that’s stigmatised as a time to shut down. Commonly perceived as relics of a bygone age, older people are often viewed as being immobilised by frailty – out of touch and all too often, out of sight.
Yet the stories and experiences of many older people do not conform to these antiquated and outmoded stereotypes. They view retirement as an opportunity to explore new hobbies, activities and relationships, and could offer the key to helping us all age in a positive and active way.
Over the last two years our research team, based at the University of Exeter Medical School, has followed a group of active older adults as part of the Moving Stories project. We’ve talked to them about their pastimes, sports and hobbies, taken photos of them in action, and asked others what they think about their lifestyles and stories.
We’re hoping that by listening to their accounts of ‘moving’, we can understand how and why they’ve been able to deal with the challenges of growing older and being active that everyone faces. We also want to know what role all types of physical activity, rather than just exercise, can play in ageing well.
An incredibly broad range of people from across Cornwall signed up to take part and share their stories with us – from sea swimmers, dancers and golfers, to cyclists, walkers, bowls and badminton players. Our participants ranged in age from a positively youthful 60 to a spritely 92 and continuously conveyed their enthusiasm and desire to remain fit and active.
We’re still analysing the huge amounts of data we’ve captured, but one theme has already emerged across the majority of people we spoke to and that’s the experience of pleasure.
The importance of pleasure is under-researched in health-related areas, particularly in relation to physical activity in older age. Pleasure can take many forms but in this context we’re talking about feelings that make a person feel good, including happiness, joy, fun, and tranquillity.
Many of our participants described so-called ‘sensual’ pleasures – such as the feeling of the wind in their hair when walking outdoors, and the gliding and floating sensations of swimming through the ocean or a pool. These types of experiences show signs of the human senses connecting people with their environment and providing feelings that help contribute to happiness and wellbeing.
We found that people also drew pleasure from documenting their experiences. Whether it was through keeping a diary or writing articles for community magazines, our participants felt a sense of pleasure long after the activity had taken place. So it looks as though it’s not just the activity that can give pleasure, but what happens before and after. We think this might be an important mechanism for expanding the appeal of taking part in some form of activity.
Get Into An Active Routine
Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the active older people in our study also described the pleasure they derived from simply having a routine.
The habitual nature of some of their activities gave them a structure that, in the absence of work, was very welcome.
The experience of pleasure seems like an important factor in how and why people stay active. It’s gives us an important insight into how we measure the impact of physical activity, showing being active is about much more than meeting recommended guidelines and preventing illness.
Through the help of our participants, we’re starting to uncover the other ways in which physical activity might enable us to ‘move’ through life ( later life in particular) in a positive, pleasurable way. We’re hoping our findings will influence the way that people are empowered to stay active. We’re working with AgeUK and Cornwall Sports Partnership to help this happen.
We’ve teamed up with TheatreScience to bring this project to life on stage. The play Moving Stories – Moving On has been inspired by interviews with our participants.
The opening performance is free and takes place in Truro on October 2. More information visit http://www.ecehh.org/events/moving-stories-theatre.
Dr Cassandra Phoenix is a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School.
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