Healthy ageing: Simple steps to help you help your parents age well

Why is it a good use of your time to help your parents age well? Proactively supporting healthy ageing habits in your parents not only contributes to their well-being but also lays the foundation for a brighter and easier future for yourself. By helping to maintain their health and independence, you have a greater chance of reducing the need for intensive caregiving and the emotional burdens that often come with having elderly parents.

While some of us may be lucky enough to have parents that are already knowledgeable and proactive about healthy ageing, many of us are not. It’s a fact of life that we’re all creatures of habit and our habits are not always the best ones we can have. But it’s never too late to change and the sooner you help them to do so the better.

While certain things are beyond our control, with a little effort and gentle persuasion on your part, you could help them avoid preventable health issues and save them (and yourself) from a lot of stress, pain and heartache in the future.

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What exactly do we mean by healthy ageing?

No one wants to reach retirement age and not be able to make the most of those much-awaited years because of ill health and decreased mobility. Sadly, because of the lifestyle choices they make (often influenced by cultural norms) many people find they begin to suffer with health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, develop arthritis or notice a decline in their mental capabilities as they age. Healthy ageing is about trying to prevent or at least detain those, and many other problems of older life, by addressing the causes while a person is still young enough for it to make a difference.

While we can’t all live in a sunny country like Italy, Spain or Greece, it’s been scientifically proven that a Mediterranean diet and a more outdoor, social way of life can lead to a healthier and more active old age.

There’s an old saying that goes – you are what you eat – and there’s a lot of truth in those few words. But while having a good diet in later life is an important factor to healthy ageing, it’s not the only one. As well as a change of diet, you’ll need to be prepared to encourage your parents to consider:

  • Being more physically active
  • Giving up or at least keeping bad habits like heavy drinking or smoking to a minimum
  • Having regular health check-ups
  • Sharing their worries with you
  • Increasing their social activities
  • Including a hobby or other form of mental stimulation in their daily routine

Why is healthy ageing a challenge?

By nature, we are creatures of habit. The familiar makes us feel comfortable. The new and unfamiliar not so much. And let’s face it, no one likes to be told the way they’re living isn’t the best for them and may in the long term be detrimental to their health even if it’s true.

As investigative science advances we’re often told things that were once thought to be healthy are now no longer considered to be. That’s something that will have occurred several times during your parent’s lifetime. For that reason, they may choose to ignore the latest information published on diet, health and lifestyle trends. Your parents may find it easier to stick to what they know rather than make a drastic lifestyle change only to be told a few years down the line that the scientists got it wrong again.

Consider this too – people who were born during the baby boomer era, and before, have had the internet at their disposal for some time now – but they didn’t grow up with it. While they may be adept at using it, they’ll also be aware that false information on the internet is rife and may distrust the legitimacy of information that, in the long term, could be beneficial to them.

Simple steps to help your parents age well

Provide your parents with interesting educational material

Being well-informed about healthy ageing is key to sparking your parents’ interest in changing their lifestyle for a healthier one. If you want to recommend internet content then make sure the web pages you suggest are ones that they will find trustworthy. GOV.UK, the NHS and AgeUK all have informative articles on healthy ageing that are full of tips and practical advice.

While they’re popular with younger generations, your parents may not be overly interested in Americanised motivational videos like Ted Talks. Alternatively, they may prefer to listen to a podcast as it’s similar to listening to the radio. An all-round winner though are documentaries.

Documentaries about the world’s Blue Zones, places where it’s proven people live longer, and the effects of the Mediterranean diet are interesting viewing and full of information that may well convince your parents to change their habits. They’re great conversation starters so make sure to watch with them. A great one is journalist Jon Snow’s How to Live to 100, and the Netflix series Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones with author Dan Buettner. Books such as Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life, which delves into the Japanese concept of life meaning and longevity, can be real eye-openers too.

Be proactive in encouraging healthy habits

If you’re going to endeavour to encourage your parents to change their lifestyle then you need to practise what you preach – at least when you’re in their company.

Quitting bad habits – If they’re smokers then you may want to suggest they seek advice from their doctor or medical professional about giving up. They may find using the NHS Stop Smoking Service where they can speak to a fully trained Stop Smoking Advisor helpful. They’ll also be able to find out what treatments are available on prescription to help them give up for good. If your parents would benefit from cutting down on their alcohol intake then their doctor is also a good place to start to seek advice on how to do it. These days there are also many more decent options for alcohol-free or low-alcohol alternatives to replace their favourite tipple from time to time, such as using Seedlip for non-alcoholic G&Ts, or Lucky Saint Beer.

Making dietary changes – Everyone has their favourite food, the food they turn to time and time again. Getting someone to change their dietary habits isn’t easy and can take time, but is worth the effort in the long run.

If your parents are the type that tend to stick to traditional British food and have their weekly menu planned down to the last breakfast crumpet, you could well have a battle on your hands. If that happens try some of the following methods to pique their interest:

  • Introduce them to new, healthier foods by cooking it for them
  • Gift them a set of cookbooks full of healthy ageing recipes
  • Take them out to a restaurant serving pho bowls, tapas or vegetarian food
  • Sign them up for a creative cookery course.

Getting more active – Exercise is key to healthy ageing. Your parents might not thank you if you try to turn them into lycra-wearing gym bunnies, but they may, with a little encouragement, not be too averse to including some of the following in their weekly routine.

  • Set a steps-per-day target and keep a record of what they’ve done using an app on their phone or a fitbit. Do it as well and make it competitive.
  • Join a rambling or walking group. Not only will they get some exercise, but make new friends too.
  • Take up swimming at their local pool
  • Join a water aerobics class
  • Join a dance class
  • Join a yoga class

Tip: You can also check what exercise classes for older adults are organised by AgeUK in their area. Depending on where your parents live, you might find there are pilates, yoga, dance or tai chi classes and even walking football games they can attend with other people of the same age.

Before starting any new exercise regimen, it’s essential for your parent to have a check-up with their doctor to ensure they are medically cleared for physical activity.

Encourage education

Just because your parents are getting old, doesn’t mean they can’t learn something new. Having plenty of mental stimulation can help delay the on-set of dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to studies conducted by the Glasgow Memory Centre, people who study or speak a second language can keep memory loss at bay for four to five years longer than someone who only speaks one.

Learning a new lingo with your parents can be hilarious fun. But apart from signing your parents up for an online language course or getting them on the Duolingo app, which is free and excellent, there are lots of other things you can suggest to help keep them, and you, more mentally alert. Try some of the following:

  • Encourage them to do Wordle each day
  • Play word games like Scrabble together
  • Do a daily crossword or sudoku puzzle
  • Take classes for writing short stories, poetry or screenplays – local libraries or colleges will have information about this type of course
  • Join a book club

Encourage regular health checks

No one likes going to the doctors especially when they’re feeling as fit as the proverbial fiddle. Having regular annual or even six-monthly check-ups though is very important as people get older. While your parents probably won’t want you to accompany them to the surgery or clinic, you can make sure they’re attending their check-up appointments by asking them if they’ve been.

These days most age-related health screening appointments are either generated by a patient’s doctor or issued automatically by the NHS and are free. Depending on your parent’s age the ones you should be checking to make sure they’ve had or are scheduled to have are:

  • Bowel cancer screening – Screening is available to everyone from age 60 years of age by testing faeces, and the programme is gradually expanding to include those from age 50
  • Breast cancer screening – Carried out every three years for women between the ages of 51 and 71
  • NHS Health Check – Anyone between the ages of 40 and 74 is eligible for a free NHS health check. It’s usually carried out every five years and tests for the person’s risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease.

There is currently no NHS screening programme for PSA testing which is the test used for diagnosing prostate cancer in men. If your parent is symptom free – having a PSA test is something they should discuss with their doctor who will advise them whether or not to take the test as they have been proven to be unreliable.

Medication management – If your parent has to take medication on a long-term basis they will have a yearly medication review with their doctor. You will need to make sure they keep the review appointment or their automatic repeat prescriptions may get cancelled.

On a week to week basis, if your parent is getting forgetful, you may want to check if they have a good enough supply of the medication they need. If not, get them to call their doctor’s surgery for an additional prescription and assist them in collecting it from the chemist.

If they take several different medications they will probably already have a day to day pill organiser. Filling a pill organiser can be tedious so they’ll probably appreciate getting a helping hand with it. It’ll also give you the chance to check they’re taking their medication correctly without being overly intrusive.

Be supportive

Everyone needs help sometimes. Make sure your parents know that you’ll be there if and when they need you and encourage other family members to do the same. Older people often don’t like asking for help so it’s a good idea to ask if you can do anything for them. Whatever you do, no matter how small a task, will be appreciated.

Taking time to have a proper chat is important. Don’t take the standard – I’m okay – reply as gospel. They may well be far from it. And make sure it’s a chat that’s not being constantly interrupted by calls or messages on your mobile. Listen to what your parent has to say and what they’re worrying about. If they share a problem you or your siblings have the ability to help solve, do it.

Help them stay social

Being stuck at home alone is one of the main causes of depression among older people, and is a risk factor for developing dementia. Staying at home can also become a bad habit if your parent has experienced a fall and lost their confidence to go out alone. What can you do to resolve the problem?

As well as calling regularly, and including them in social activities with your friends and family from time to time, the majority of places in the UK have some type of social club for older people so check to see if there’s one in their area. Most clubs of this type meet once or twice a week, have activities and outings your parent can join in with and many also provide a light lunch or snack for their members. If your parent can’t get to a club under their own steam, take them or organise transport for them.

Help them stay safe

A vital part of helping your parents with healthy ageing is making sure they’re safe in their home. While they may not need all the latest high tech for remote monitoring that’s being favoured for ageing in place, you can still make their home more age-friendly.

When you visit your parents check:

  • For cables or rugs they could trip over
  • Any accumulated clutter that could be a safety hazard
  • That the batteries in smoke detectors are working
  • That they can reach what they need in cupboards without the risk of losing their balance

It’s a well known statistic that most accidents in the home happen either in the kitchen or in the bathroom. Take extra time to make sure both of those rooms in your parent’s house are as safe as they possibly can be.

In summary

Being proactive in helping your parents with healthy ageing means they’ll be able to enjoy their later years more and hopefully have to lean on you less. They’ll be healthier, more active and more sociable than they otherwise would be if you do, which will save you stress and worry. Following the simple steps mentioned in this article isn’t complicated or even time-consuming, but they can make a big difference. But remember it is all about careful suggestion and persuasion, and providing them with information, not force.

Common questions

  • How do I talk to my parents about ageing?

The only way to talk to your parents about ageing is openly. Ageing is a fact of life and happens to all of us eventually and while no one likes to admit they’re getting older, there’s really no escape from it.

  • What should I do if my parents resist my efforts to help them age healthily?

Unless your parents no longer have full mental capacity then they’re perfectly entitled to choose the way they want to live whether it’s healthy or not. All you can do is continue with gentle persuasion, provide them with well-sourced information and hope they change their minds.

  • What is the best exercise for healthy ageing?

Gentle exercises like walking, swimming, tai chi or yoga are good. Depending on your parents’ physical capabilities they may also enjoy pilates and dancing.

  • Are there any proven ways to prevent dementia?

While it won’t prevent dementia, it’s been proven that exercise and a healthy lifestyle and being social as well as keeping mentally stimulated can keep the onset of dementia at bay for several years.

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