We are all ageing – it’s a fundamental fact of life. But the majority of us are totally unprepared for what lies ahead
We are all ageing – it’s a fundamental fact of life. But the majority of us are totally unprepared for what lies ahead.
Yes, we may have pensions in place and follow the basics of a healthy lifestyle but can you truly say that you have thought deeply about all aspects of your later life?
The good news is I’m here to tell you that getting older doesn’t have to mean it all goes downhill.
In fact, it can be the start of a whole new adventure if you are prepared for a major rethink about how you can make your later years some of your happiest.
The story of ageing has changed dramatically in the past decade because life expectancy has been increasing year on year at a fantastic rate.
Medical and public health advances, from sanitation to statins, all continue to extend our lives, and yet society – and, indeed, we as individuals – haven’t caught up with that change.
Respected medical journal The Lancet has, staggeringly, predicted more than half of British babies born in 2007 will live to the age of 103. It’s entirely possible that many of today’s 50-year-olds will only be halfway through their lives.
The big question, then, is this: are you prepared for those extra years? Most of us are not.
Yet none of us wants to imagine that we’ll lose our independence, confidence, or our ability to continue to do the things we love.
The good news is it’s never too late to start planning for a fabulous later life.
The story of ageing has changed dramatically in the past decade because life expectancy has been increasing year on year at a fantastic rate [File photo]
I have spent years working at the UK’s Centre For Ageing Better – where I am director of communications – learning what matters most to people as they age.
And I believe the secret is to imagine, and plan for, the best that your later life can be.
Start by finding out what retirement tribe you belong to, which will help you work out how well you are ageing. The graphic is shown at the bottom of this page.
But don’t panic if you’re not happy with the result – I am going to share with you my top tips for transforming your later years – from maintaining good health, to funding retirement and even future-proofing your home…
Carry the shopping home, and really dig the garden
Strength and balance rapidly decline after 40. You lose around eight per cent of your muscle mass every decade after you turn 40.
Additionally, around 70 per cent of over 70s have arthritis in at least one part of the body.
But did you know it’s possible to reverse some of this muscle loss? With simple exercises, you can not only manage conditions like arthritis, but reduce your risk of falling and keep your independence for longer.
You could play badminton or golf, or even just carry the shopping home, do some heavy gardening or DIY – all will help build muscle mass and bone strength [File photo]
Also, if you can maintain your ability to grip with your hands, get up out of a chair and support your body when you bathe and go to the toilet, you’ll be able to stay independent all your life.
The Chief Medical Officer’s advice is to do three things: 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, a day; sit down less; and do two sessions of strength and balance exercises a week. These don’t have to be in the gym.
You could play badminton or golf, or even just carry the shopping home, do some heavy gardening or DIY – all will help build muscle mass and bone strength.
Walk up the stairs 20 times a day; even standing on one leg while brushing your teeth will have an effect if you do it every day. Just make sure you wear the right footwear.
Slippers can encourage a ‘shuffle’ and increase your risk of falling. Instead, choose something with a supported arch and straps or laces to keep your feet firmly in place. A comfy pair of trainers might be a good alternative.
Does your home suit the 20-minute rule?
How safe does your area feel? Think about how easy it is to get around, and how connected you feel to others – all of these things are crucial to your future health and happiness.
You might want to be able to visit friends, family and grandchildren easily, get to the allotment, yoga club or pub, or reach the airport for those trips to Miami.
Consider the ‘20-minute’ rule – where can you reach within 20 minutes of walking, driving or public transport?
A few services – such as a shop for basics such as milk and bread – a few minutes’ walk from your house would be a bonus, with a more substantial high street 20 minutes away.
How safe does your area feel? Think about how easy it is to get around, and how connected you feel to others – all of these things are crucial to your future health and happiness [File photo]
Plan for what might happen if you can’t – or don’t want to – drive any more and have to rely on public transport. What about cycling? Take it up now and there’s no reason you should ever stop.
Also, think about inside your home and make any future-proofing decisions now to prevent stress and upheaval later.
For example, you might want a house on a single level rather than one with stairs. On the other hand, remember stair climbing is great for strength and balance.
Or perhaps the changes you need to make are less drastic – a walk-in shower rather than a bath, for example.
Or are too many of your cupboards up high and hard to reach? Is your garden tricky to access and difficult to maintain?
These are things that, with planning and time, you can work to change now, rather than waiting for them to become a problem.
Talk to yourself…in Swahili
There’s a common myth that a daily sudoku can help keep dementia at bay. But while puzzles and crosswords may help maintain memory, there is some debate as to whether they can stop dementia developing in the long run.
Instead, it’s great to learn a new skill or language. Did you know that if you can commit to practising it regularly, you can actually increase your brain power and reverse the signs of ageing?
Dr Thomas Bak, a reader in human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, explains: ‘You see an improvement in cognitive health even after a week of learning. We think it’s due to increasing synaptic density, potentially increasing the amount of white matter and connections in the brain. The more of this you have, the healthier your brain is, for longer.’
Dr Bak suggests naming objects you see in different languages. See a squirrel in the garden? Try naming it in French, Spanish or even Swahili.
While lots of practice – up to five hours a week – shows an amazing improvement on brain health, even small amounts help.
And taking up anything new will have a similar effect.
One study which compared the brain health of one group who spent time watching films or socialising with another which learned digital photography or quilting, found the group learning new skills had better cognitive ability.
But you must keep doing it – so make sure it’s fun.
If there’s something bothering you, don’t let it boil away under the surface. And finally, spice up your sex life. Remember, relationships are about quality, not quantity [File photo]
Does a relationship need an MoT?
It’s obvious to say keep sociable by joining clubs or exercise groups. But also make sure you ‘replenish the convoy’ of your friendships by replacing those who drop away – nurture your existing relationships and build new ones.
Your convoy could and should be made up of people of different ages, who mean different things to you. They could range from neighbours you speak to frequently to your life partner.
Also, be careful you’re not neglecting the person closest to you. That’s where a relationship MOT comes in.
Take time with your partner to find things you can do together that you both like, so you’re spending time doing something fulfilling.
But also ensure that you have outside interests independent of each other – so you have lots of stories to tell each other (and you’re not spending absolutely all your time together).
Also, discuss how satisfied you feel with your relationship. This might be a hard one – remember to be sensitive and diplomatic.
If there’s something bothering you, don’t let it boil away under the surface. And finally, spice up your sex life.
Remember, relationships are about quality, not quantity.
So which retirement tribe do you belong to?
Research has identified six distinct groups in the over-50 population in the UK.
Which one are you, or, perhaps more importantly, which do you want to be? There are things you can do to change your circumstances.
Planning ahead and taking action now to build your health, financial security and positive attitude to ageing will mean you have more control later when it comes to retirement or how you approach an illness.
Financially secure with a good pension and savings, healthy and fit, and with strong social connections with friends and family. Happy and positive and more likely to enjoy cultural outings.
Mortgage-free and largely well-off, but pessimistic about the future and regretful about ‘missed opportunities’ in the past. In relative good health but don’t always have sufficient funds to cover everything they want.
Can-do and connected
In generally poorer physical health, but with strong social relationships and more optimistic and practical. Few savings but very contented. Mainly widowed women in their 70s and 80s.
Worried and disconnected
Mainly over 70, retired and in poor health and anxious about becoming a burden. Have difficulty making connections with new people, and don’t like relying on existing friends or family.
Still working but under pressure, with multiple demands on time and money, often looking after parents and financially dependent children. Anxious, with little time for themselves and unable to save for retirement.
Struggling and alone
Frequently or always short of money, living alone with few social connections. May experience depression and unhappiness. Some may have been ill or disabled for many years and unable to save money for retirement.
Banish the dreaded middle age spread
A weighty two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese. If you’ve put on the extra stone since your 40s and need to buy skirts or trousers with elasticated waistbands, you already know you need to do something about it.
Carrying this excess weight is dangerous as it increases the chances of developing heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes. So start calorie counting and consider taking a vitamin D supplement to strengthen bones, too.
Official guidelines suggest men need 2,500 calories a day while women need 2,000.
But Public Health England now recommends sticking to an overall total of 1,600 calories a day – 400 for breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for dinner.
If we have a negative attitude, deep distaste or even revulsion about old age – what is called ‘internalised ageism’ – it will affect our behaviour as we grow older. A negative attitude to ageing can take seven years off your life, according to a study by academics at Yale University [File photo]
Also be mindful of the calories in alcohol. On average, middle-aged men between 45 and 64 drink 37 units a week – the equivalent of 16 pints of beer – which is 2.5 times more than the safe recommended levels. Small changes could make a big difference, however.
Doctors recommend at least two alcohol-free days a week. But try ordering lower-alcohol drinks, choosing a half pint rather than a full one, and using smaller wine glasses at home to reduce the amount you consume.
Make sure there’s money in the pot
Most people say they don’t want to be rich in retirement – they just want to be able to pay the rent or mortgage, cover food and bills and have extra money to pursue hobbies.
Importantly, they want enough money for unexpected events and to pay for care if necessary.
When the modern state pension was introduced in 1948, a 65-year-old could expect to receive it, on average, for 13.5 years before they died – 23 per cent of their adult life.
In 2017, the average 65-year-old can expect to live a further 22.8 years.
So don’t underestimate what you’ll need.
People think they’ll need £124,000 in a pension pot in addition to a state pension for a retirement income of £25,000 a year. In reality, you need about £315,000.
The best way to start planning is to think about what your outgoings will be and your expectations about what you intend to do in your retirement.
Most people find the basic state pension – even the full entitlement, currently £164.35 a week if you’ve paid 35 years of National Insurance contributions – isn’t enough to cover essential expenses, so you’ll need private savings.
Don’t be ageist- try a nightclub
If you think you can’t travel the world, go to nightclubs or learn a new skill because you’re ‘too old’ then you won’t do those highly enjoyable, life-affirming things.
If we have a negative attitude, deep distaste or even revulsion about old age – what is called ‘internalised ageism’ – it will affect our behaviour as we grow older.
A negative attitude to ageing can take seven years off your life, according to a study by academics at Yale University.
Instead, we need to re-imagine how we see old age and think more positively in order to live longer.
Guy Robertson, at consultants Positive Ageing Associates, says: ‘If you feel positive, you are more likely to behave in a positive and self-protecting way.
‘Negative attitudes are the ones that make people say, “I’m 70 now so I shouldn’t bother the doctor about the pain in my back. It’s just going to be normal for someone my age. I’ll suffer in silence”.
‘But the way we think about ageing has a huge impact on how likely we are to get ill, how fast we’ll recover from illness, how our memory performs, and even our ability to do simple activities of daily life like getting out of a chair.’
Guy recommends trying to train the brain to think more positively. If you lose your wallet, instead of thinking of it as a disaster, don’t blame yourself. Think, ‘I can cancel my bank cards and borrow ten quid. It won’t stop me enjoying my weekend.
‘It’s about checking and correcting a tendency to be our own worst enemy.’
© Louise Ansari, 2019
When We’re 64: Your Guide To A Great Later Life, by Louise Ansari, is published by Green Tree, priced £12.99.