For longevity in both the mind and body, stimulation is essential
Lauren Glendenning
October 7, 2019

Ample research demonstrates the mind’s capacity to influence a person’s health, both positively and negatively. If left unchecked, depression and despair can inhibit recovery from illness and lead to hopelessness and premature death.

Researcher Ken Wells, in the landmark Rand study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 50 percent of all depressed people are over 65. Wells studied depressed versus nondepressed people and found that depressed elderly patients used four times the amount of health care dollars than nondepressed seniors, and had a 58 percent greater mortality rate within the first year of admittance to a skilled nursing facility than their nondepressed counterparts.

For example, depressed people tend to lack motivation to get up and move about. This inactivity makes them susceptible to urinary tract infections and pneumonia, which if left untreated can lead to kidney failure and death.

Stimulating the mind and body

For a community’s enrichment and activity program to be effective, it must be sensitive to the emotional forces that motivate people in this age group. The program must be designed to redirect their focus away from their limitations and toward productive, educational and social activities with a positive emphasis that will enhance the quality of life.

Today’s senior apartments are full of activity. Residents are attending college courses, cooking classes, traveling, and remaining active in service organizations in the community. Variety and respect for individual preference are key elements in a successful recreational activities program. Leisure interests are lifelong habits that each person develops. These interests continue into later life, even after one has entered a senior living community.

A sense of purpose

Many innovative programs utilizing different services and modalities have been developed. Where communities provide supportive living and socialization, along with medical care, resident functioning is enhanced and deteriorations of old age are significantly delayed.

More and more research shows that if seniors want to feel younger and stay healthier, they need to get involved with life. The very act of volunteering and interacting with others brings a sense of purpose and contribution to one’s self and community in a way that can actually build longevity while strengthening the body, mind and spirit.

Improving brain function

According to recent studies, there is a strong and direct link between physical activity and how the brain works. Different types, amounts and intensities of physical activities improve brain function. Michelle Carlson of Johns Hopkins University is working with a novel new program called Experience Corps. This program embeds physical and mental activity into weekly volunteering for older adults to mentor children in local elementary schools.

“We need to address socioeconomic barriers to motivate older adults to regularly engage in healthful behaviors,” Carlson says. “And many people don’t appreciate the power of physical activity for our brains.”

Multiple studies from this and other similar programs have found that regular physical and mental activity has resulted in improved memory and other cognitive functions.

Theme-based activities

Intergenerational programs are part of the routine at Renew Roaring Fork. “We have a weekly music expressions group which brings seniors at the community together with toddlers to share a regular musical journey and explore the feel, sound and vibrations from various musical instruments,” according to Jennetta Howell, Renew enrichment director who leads the group.

As a musician and former singer/performer, she has both experienced and personally witnessed how the children and residents interact through the common string of music.

“The residents, children and moms all look forward to these weekly sessions which leave everyone invigorated and engaged,” she said.

She has found that targeting low-intensity activity that is theme-based, in this case music, is an important and scalable intervention that leaves everyone challenged and satisfied.

Meaningful impacts

Many older adults have a desire to participate in meaningful, productive activities that have been proven to be highly beneficial. In one recent study published in Aging magazine, epidemiological data suggests that for older adults, volunteering and intergenerational activities have been associated with lower mortality, improved well-being, life satisfaction and may decrease functional decline.

We all age differently mentally physically and emotionally. Whether you are you are simply experiencing “senior moments” or have been diagnosed with dementia, research shows that the condition is never bigger than the person and that there is something everyone can do to make an impact.

Whether it is helping children with reading skills or making art to donate to an underprivileged children’s program, seniors are not done yet and they still have something to contribute — and seniors are strengthened from that contribution, according to research in major universities like Johns Hopkins.

“We use activities and programming to promote a sense of well-being and purpose,” explained Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Management. “This provides a sense of accomplishment and contribution that is ‘instrumental’ to combatting the unhealthy effects of boredom and depression.“

Active aging

Research shows that creativity and imagination are untapped reserves in all elderly people and even in those with dementia. Given that, it’s possible that true retirement can actually become obsolete for active adults.

“We believe there are no age limits and that age is just another limit to shatter,” according to Mr. Tuchfarber. “Participating in a volunteer program drives health benefits through increased physical activity, a sense of contribution, and social connectedness. … Keeping busy by volunteering is a form of active aging and if you don’t use it you lose it, but if you do use it, you become stronger,” he concluded.

Originally posted Sept. 11, 2019 on