This is the time of year when we take stock of the previous year, and make note of changes we’d like to make in our lives. Maybe your list of resolutions includes ways to improve your financial health, such as saving more and spending less. Maybe you’d like to improve yourself in other ways—volunteering more, learning a new skill or taking a yoga class.
Need a few more great ideas? If you’re an older adult or a family caregiver—or, more likely these days, both—here are three research-based resolutions that can improve your health and well-being.
Resolution #1: Make time for exercise.
Each year, research confirms that physical activity is the top factor for healthy aging. 2016 was no exception! Of particular note is that even people who are active can be harmed if they spend most of the day sitting. Spending most of the day sitting harms the heart and brain—even for people who exercise regularly. Resolve to be more active, even in small ways. Exercise doesn’t have to be in one solid block; fifteen minutes here and there can be just as beneficial.
For seniors: Geriatrics researchers tell us that even frail seniors can benefit from increased activity. Talk to your healthcare provider about an exercise program that is appropriate for your health condition. Look into senior fitness classes, or perhaps a set of home exercises that includes aerobic, flexibility and strengthening activities.
For family caregivers: Busy family caregivers find that exercise drops to the bottom of their to-do list—or off the list entirely. But these people who do so much for their loved ones should remember that inactivity raises the risk of heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise is a top way to overcome stress and improve overall health. If you are having trouble scheduling a workout, it might be time to ask other family members and friends to help.
Resolution #2: Expand your social circle.
We used to think of socializing as just a way to pass the time, but research over the past few years has overwhelmingly demonstrated that spending time with others protects the brain, heart, our emotional well-being, even our immune system.
For seniors: Older adults can be at greater risk of isolation and loneliness. Leading expert Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago even says, “Chronic loneliness belongs among other health risks, such as smoking, obesity or lack of exercise.” Sensory and mobility impairment, giving up the car keys and losing friends who have passed away or moved all make socializing more of a challenge—but it’s worth the effort to find opportunities to be around other people. Several studies also show that while spending time with family is good, seniors also need to spend time with people they consider to be peers. Even social networking sites, such as Facebook, can offer solid socialization benefits. These sites are not as good as “in real life” friends, but for many, they offer company and stimulation.
For caregivers: Many caregivers, too, experience loneliness. Even as they are spending a lot of time in the company of their loved one, they miss socializing with friends. Their busy schedule, fatigue, and in some cases, fair-weather friends who stop calling, can leave them feeling isolated and depressed. This year, resolve to make a lunch date with old friends … and in addition, make some new friends. Have you tried a support group? Sharing your thoughts and suggestions with others is a great stress-buster and many long-lasting friendships have begun in this context.
Resolution #3: Take a good, hard look at your alcohol use.
Do you sometimes have a bit too much champagne on New Year’s Eve and wake up on January 1 with headache and other symptoms of a hangover? If so, you are not alone. If this was a one-time indulgence, remember to cut back on those toasts next year. But if you drink more than you should on a regular basis, consider that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has named alcohol abuse by people over 65 as one of the fastest-growing health problems in the U.S.!
For seniors: While there may be some health benefits from consuming a small or moderate amount of alcohol, drinking too much negates those benefits and worsens many health conditions. It damages the liver and can lead to malnutrition and fall injuries. It damages the brain, and affects our sleep quality. And when seniors mix alcohol with prescription drugs, the combination can be deadly. If you are worried about a loved one’s drinking, encourage him or her to talk to their healthcare provider about counseling or a support group that is geared toward the needs of older adults.
For caregivers: If you’re worried about your own drinking, all the above suggestions are for you, too. But remember that caring for a person with a substance abuse problem also can quickly become your problem. You can’t force another person to deal with a drinking problem. Your loved one may be defensive or in denial and may try to conceal the problem. If the conversation isn’t going well, talk to a counselor or specialist. Join a support group for families of people with alcohol dependency. And take care of yourself.