When people talk about being healthy, they are usually just talking about being free of symptoms. But, if you step back and look at a holistic definition of health, it’s about a whole lot more than just being disease and illness free. Being healthy is about living a well-rounded lifestyle. It is, of course, about living free from the burdens of symptoms and ailments, but it’s also about being happy. Interestingly enough, the more you focus on happiness, the more traditional metrics of healthiness tend to fall into place.
Researchers have found that individuals who enjoy life and are happy are also fitter and healthier in old age. Conversely, unhappy people were up to twice as likely to suffer from serious health problems like heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. So, if you want to age well and stay healthy, you should be thinking about more than your next check-up. You should be actively pursuing lifestyle choices that lead to happiness. Here are five great ways for seniors to find happiness, and increase their overall health and well-being in the process.
Anyone who has ever owned a pet can tell you that a special feeling of connection and companionship can develop out of pet relationships. Having a pet for a companion leads to feelings of love and security since pets can love so unconditionally and provide so much warmth to pet owners lives when doing so. Research shows that, for seniors, pet ownership has a healing effect that goes beyond just providing emotional comfort.
Pet Owners Are Happier and Healthier Than the General Population
Returning to our theme of happiness, research shows that people who own pets are, on average, happier and healthier than the general population. While the emotional benefits of owning a pet are relatively straightforward, pets contributed to higher health metrics across many fields. In addition to heightened self-esteem, pet owners tend to be more physically fit, less lonely, and more extroverted than individuals who do not own pets, according to the Allen McConnell of Miami University in Ohio. Digging into the specific health benefits paints just as positive of a picture.
Pet ownership is linked to positive health outcomes across a wide variety of metrics. According to a survey by the Australian National Heart Foundation, pet owners have been shown to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than those who do not own pets. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo have found that individuals on blood pressure medication are less likely to have spikes in blood pressure as a response to outside stimulus when they are pet owners. The American Heart Association has even found a correlation between owning a dog and having a lowered chance of risk for heart failure and heart disease.
All of these health benefits and more are tied to the fact that pets help reduce stress levels of pet owners. Owning a pet leads to higher levels of oxytocin, the love hormone, which your body produces when you feel attached to something that is important to you. This chemical release leads to lowered cortisol levels, which has an enormous positive effect on all of the health areas listed above and many more. In short, pets make people happy. Happier people are less stressed and tend to be healthier overall. When looking to seniors specifically, these positive health benefits can have a profound effect on quality of life.
Pet Ownership Improves Quality of Life for Seniors
Seniors can benefit from all of the positive effects that pets can have on the health of all pet owners, but there are more specific ways that older pet owners can benefit from a furry companion. For starters, seniors are unfortunately more likely to suffer from some of the specific health issues mentioned above that pets can help to improve, like heart disease. But, beyond those areas, seniors are especially likely to benefit from some of the psychological supports that a pet can bring to their life.
Many seniors living on their own or in assisted living facilities struggle with loneliness and the depression that arises from being alone. Pets can help confront those emotional issues head-on by providing companionship that is always there. Additionally, pets can help seniors become more social with other retired individuals in their home or area, as the joys that a pet can provide are contagious. Common areas and rec centers can turn from boring hangouts to sunny social hubs when a pet is thrown into the mix, helping seniors branch out and form connections with a pet’s encouragement.
These psychological benefits of companionship, from decreased feelings of loneliness and depression to increased feelings of connectivity, all help to further decrease stress levels even more - providing a positive feedback loop that continues to deliver increasing health benefits. By decreasing stress, providing unwavering love and companionship, and bringing a constant, positive source of happiness to seniors’ lives, pets are a perfect example of the link between happiness and health. Pets make seniors happy, which can help with a wide range of health outcomes, further increasing happiness and boosting overall quality of life.
Picking the Right Pet for Seniors
It is important to understand that all of these health and happiness benefits will only be present if seniors choose the right pet for them. In general, seniors may not be the best fit for younger pets like newborn puppies, since training a young pet can add a whole lot of stress to a pet owner’s life. Additionally, seniors may not benefit from some specialty pets that have expensive upkeep, since most retired people are living on a tight budget.
One great solution for seniors is to adopt older pets, who can share retirement with their elder owners. Older cats and dogs that are already trained and well-mannered provide all of the benefits of great companionship without a lot of the stressors of behavioral issues. And, older dogs usually don’t need quite as much exercise, and may be more manageable for seniors for that reason as well. In general, when picking a pet for a senior owner, just be honest about how much time and energy the older pet owner has to dedicate to their pet, what they are capable of doing to keep their pet happy on a daily basis, and any financial constraints that may make owning some pets difficult. As long as you keep those factors in mind when choosing a pet, pet ownership can be an incredible joy for seniors, and can provide some great health benefits in the process.
Many people in the U.S. trust in massage for its healing properties, making massage therapy one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine there is. Massage has many health-boosting and stress-relieving benefits, which can be particularly useful to seniors. Here’s a look at some of the health-boosting effects of massage therapy, and how seniors can get the most out of massage to increase their happiness and overall health.
The Health Benefits of Massage and Touch
For starters, massages, of course, make you “feel good” while receiving them. But, according to studies, the health benefits go beyond just a nice feeling. Deep tissue massages have even been shown to boost immune system response by heightening white blood cell levels among massage patients. However, deep tissue massage may be dangerous for some seniors with sensitive muscles and outstanding pain issues. Luckily, there are lots of health benefits related to other kinds of massage as well.
Many of massage’s health benefits stem from the healing power of touch, which has been shown to have positive physical and psychological effects. Even receiving lighter massages can help clenched muscles relax, which has a huge number of positive side effects. Racing hearts can slow and heightened blood pressure levels can drop just from receiving even a light massage. The answer lies in touch. It’s not necessarily all about getting those deep knots out of deep tissues, but just about having a therapeutic hand provide an appropriate-pressured massage.
The touch that’s passed on in a massage helps decrease cortisol levels, which has a positive effect on the body in a wide number of ways. For starters, lower cortisol levels help the immune system respond to infections better and help keep white blood cell counts high. The decrease in stress that comes with the touch of a massage has other health benefits, like lowered blood pressure, which get passed on even in lighter massage variations. While a deep tissue massage may not be a safe bet for some seniors, there are a lot of others forms of massage out there that can provide some great health benefits.
Massage for Seniors
One great massage variation that seniors can benefit from, and unlock the positive benefits of therapeutic touch without the safety issues relating to deep tissue massage, is foot massage. Foot massage has been practiced in many cultures for millennia and has been shown to have some great health benefits. Since your feet build up so much pressure from carrying around your body all day, unclenching the muscles and tendons in your feet can have huge relaxation effects that help lower stress. Additionally, foot massage has been linked to increased circulation. Lastly, a lot of tension is stored in the feet, and relieving this pressure can help relax the body overall.
Another massage option that can be great for seniors and provide some unique health benefits is hand massage. Especially if you suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel, or other chronic hand pain issues, receiving a hand massage can help improve your hand, wrist, and finger mobility and range of motion. Like foot massages, relieving pain from the tendons and tissues of the hand helps improve circulation and leads to relaxation, which has positive effects all over the body. Plus, the immediate pain relief that a hand massage can provide is a big benefit in itself, as any chronic pain sufferer will tell you that any relief from arthritis or another source of hand pain is invaluable.
Massage Specifically Linked to Health Improvement in Aging Adults
While all of the health benefits of massage mentioned above apply to older individuals and can be very helpful in maintaining an overall good quality of life, there are specific links that show that massage is especially helpful for the health of seniors in particular. For one, seniors are unfortunately more likely to suffer from chronic pain, and the pain relief effects of a message can be a great way to help cope with chronic muscle soreness and stiffness.
The relief of pain has a big, positive effect on overall health, as elders who experience relief from chronic pain are able to sleep better, keep up their daily routines better, and live more active lifestyles free of pain. Frequent massages can even help improve posture and balance, as once muscles are unclenched and get the chance to relax, seniors can walk more easily and retain higher mobility. An interesting side effect of this better posture is that seniors who receive messages may be at lower risk of falling and injuring themselves, since being able to walk and move with good posture decreases the likelihood of balance-related falls.
Plus, the psychological effects of receiving a therapeutic touch can be very beneficial for seniors that feel disconnected and lonely. The touch of a massage decreases stress levels and helps the body relax overall, but can also be a great emotional support, allowing seniors to feel a connection. Seniors are especially prone to chronic pain and mobility issues, so massage is especially useful in a physiological sense. But, it is helpful in reducing stress, too. Feeling touch decreases stress levels. Again, seniors may not be suited for deep tissue style massages, but so many of the benefits of massage are present in other types too, so seniors can still enjoy them safely.
The search for companionship and romantic love is present in just about everyone, and it isn’t usually something that goes away with age. Seniors can become invested in healthy, mutually beneficial, joy-filled relationships in their retirement, even if pain and heartbreak have happened in the past. Beyond just a nice feeling of companionship and the joys of falling in love, being in a healthy relationship can have some big positive health effects for seniors. Here’s a look at some of these benefits, and how they can apply specifically to elders and people in relationships later in life.
The Health Benefits of Social Connections
As prestigious of an institution as Harvard University has recognized that where relationships are concerned, “good connections can improve health and increase longevity.” All of the research out there shows that having strong social connections can be just as important of a factor in overall health as adequate sleep and a good diet. On the other hand, lack of social connections can lead to faster cognitive decline later in life, and lead to other health issues that could be prevented through the development of healthy relationships.
Being socially connected to someone closely helps lower stress levels, which, as we have mentioned, has famia huge number of positive health effects from decreased risk of stroke to lowered blood pressure to a decreased risk of complications from heart disease. Being socially connected to someone and caring for them actually helps the body produce stress decreasing hormones. Even more interesting, Harvard notes that the quality of relationships matters, too. In other words, the closer you are to someone and the more closely connected you feel, the better the health benefits are. This is why romantic relationships can have such a powerful effect on health.
“Married People Live Longer”
While this saying is commonly passed around, research shows that there is indeed some truth to the old axiom; people in marriages DO live longer and are healthier later in life than single elders. A look at why this is the case highlights some of the health benefits that being in a caring, romantic relationship can provide, even if the relationship doesn’t lead to marriage.
For one, having someone who cares about you and is around all of the time can be great positive reinforcement to engage in healthy habits that you already knew were important, but may be more likely to abandon while in solitude. A significant other will ideally remind you to eat healthy, have one less drink at the end of the day, and get enough sleep. It’s easy to forget about these things or put them on the back burner if you are alone, but all of these small habits that can add up to big health consequences are important to stay on top of. When you have a romantic partner around to help remind you to take your own health seriously and keep up with healthy habits, it goes a long way towards overall health.
But, the health benefits of healthy relationships go beyond just positive reinforcement. Having a reliable partner nearby to support you when you are feeling down can be extremely helpful in avoiding emotional issues and depression. The stress-reducing effect of companionship cannot be overstated, and again has a huge number of positive effects on overall health.
Of course, these positive health benefits only present themselves in HEALTHY relationships. Unhealthy relationships conversely can have a big negative effect on health, which presents itself differently in different people. Often, men in unhealthy and unhappy relationships have been shown to be at higher risk of depression, and more frequently susceptible to alcohol and other substance abuse. Both women and men are susceptible to suffering from obesity and stress-induced hypertension when in unhappy relationships. Healthy relationships are hugely beneficial to overall health, but unhappy ones can be just as detrimental.
Healthy Relationships Can Be Especially Beneficial to Seniors
Seniors living in nursing homes or living on their own after retiring tend to suffer from a lack of opportunities to be social and interact with others, which often leads to feelings of loneliness and depression. As feelings of isolation increase, health consequences present themselves, from the psychological dangers of depression to the real physical ones associated with spending all of your time alone as an elder.
Being in a romantic relationship means that all of the benefits of social connection will be readily and reliably yours and that you will always have someone to turn to for companionship. For elders, these benefits are far ranging, from potentially decreasing the risk of Alzheimer’s to lowering blood pressure, to decreasing chances of heart disease. Being in a romantic relationship as an elder means that you won’t have to struggle to find connections; you will have a meaningful one to rely on. Romantic relationships can be the best way to fight off feelings of being alone and isolated, and can provide all of the benefits of social connection but to an even higher degree.
If you are a senior wondering if it’s worth it to jump back into a romantic relationship, think of all of the health and happiness benefits that being in one can provide. Realize that people find love all the time, no matter their age. It’s never too late to find a companion that can help you beat off depression and loneliness. If you are a senior dealing with these issues, putting yourself out there and looking for romantic love again can be a powerful way to improve your quality of life.
Whether it’s at a scheduled event or just a casual visit, spending time with family has a huge positive effect on senior health and happiness. Being surrounded by their children and their children’s children can make any elder feel good emotionally, and these emotional benefits translate into real health benefits. Here’s why it’s so important for seniors to spend as much time with their children and family as possible.
The Health Benefits of Relationships Don’t Stop at Romantic Relationships
All of the benefits that we covered in the section above can be particularly strong in romantic relationships, but they by no means stop there. In fact, all healthy relationships can provide some direct health benefits and family relationships are no exception. Isolation has huge negative effects on health, leading to depression and other emotional issues. Having close family connections can help fight off these feelings and the associated negative health consequences in seniors.
Having any form of social connection provides a ton of health benefits as discussed above, mostly centered around the decreased stress levels and the likelihood of depression that comes along with not being connected to someone else. Studies have shown that adults in healthy relationships live on average 3.7 years longer than adults who tend to isolate themselves. As a senior, family relationships are some of the healthiest and most rewarding that you can foster.
Healthy Family Relationships Lead to Overall Health
Family ties can be a healthy source of love, emotional support and security, and emotional protection. Family relationships are unique and unique in the connections they provide. The closeness of family love is impossible to reproduce and has some specific and powerful benefits for elders in quite a few different areas.
Elders often feel that their family is their legacy, and as thoughts of mortality and the end of life loom, getting reassured that their happy family will continue on can help set elder’s minds at ease. Plus, frequent contact with family members can help elders feel like they still provide value to the family unit and are still important, which helps fight off feelings of loneliness and depression. The enjoyment that’s brought on by family visits and spending time with children helps fight stress as well.
For many elders, it can be hard to find people to connect to, and feelings of loneliness and isolation stem from an inability to make new friends. With the importance of social connections being so critical, it’s important for seniors to interact with others no matter who they are. This is where the family can come in as a crucial resource. When elders know that family members will always be there for them and are available to socialize and spend time together often, they won’t feel as lonely - even if they have trouble meeting new people. The effect that this can have on elders, especially living in nursing homes, is huge and has been tested out in countless studies. When elders get the chance to spend time with their children and family, they are happier, and happiness is crucially important to health.
Dealing With Issues of Family Availability
For many elders, it can be hard to find a time when children and other family members are available for visits. This feeling that their family can’t make time for them can lead to additional depression and feelings of loneliness. But, if you are an elder dealing with loneliness and frustrated that your family doesn’t visit enough, remember that even if they care a lot and are trying hard to make more time, it can be difficult to do so. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be vocal about your needs and let your children and family know that you would like to spend more time with them. Often, family members get so wrapped up in their personal lives that the frequency of their visits gets forgotten. As an elder, speaking up and saying that you want to spend more time with your family can help them realize that they need to make themselves more available.
As a child of a senior, you NEED to do your best to make yourself available for connection. Reach out to your parent or grandparent and let them know that they are still important. Teach them how to use technology to feel more connected to their family and friends. Make sure that visits are as frequent as you can make them. There are huge advantages tied to elders maintaining regular contact with those they care about. As a young family member, it's your responsibility to make sure that that’s a possibility.
Overall, it can be hard for some families to spend time with elders, and retired seniors should do their best to be understanding of the limitations placed upon their families where visitation is concerned. But, when families can spend time with seniors, there are a lot of health benefits conferred, as stress levels decrease and feelings of depression caused by isolation wane. As a senior, do as much as you can to spend as much time as possible with your family. Family relationships are unlike any other. Your family can be a great resource that you can count on to be loving no matter what. As a child or young family member of an elder, do everything you can to spend time with them. Doing so could improve their overall health!
Many of the options to help seniors achieve healthy lifestyles mentioned above are somewhat conventional, and some seniors may be following all of the advice already offered here and still be unhappy or unhealthy. This is why so many elders look for other options and explore everything out there to try to find something that makes them happy and keeps them healthy. Music therapy is just such an option, but one that can provide a lot of health benefits for elders.
What is Music Therapy?
For starters, it’s important to approach music therapy as complementary medicine. Despite the health benefits it can provide and the term therapy in its title, music therapy shouldn’t replace traditional psychological support or any other types of treatment. Instead, music therapy can go a long way towards aiding elders who are already seeking help and already consulting a therapist.
Music therapy can be applied by trained experts to meet a wide range of goals, but typically it is best used in support of elders in a few specific ways. Through introducing music into therapy sessions, therapists can help control some direct physical outcomes in older patients, and help them do things like reach a relaxed, even breathing pattern, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and relax in general. Additionally, music therapy can be helpful in balancing emotions and even sharpening mental function. Since it has so many applications and uses, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact definition of music therapy, but it’s helpful to remember that it can have a lot of health benefits as long as it is conducted by a trained professional.
The Healing Effects of Music Therapy
Music has a very specific triggering effect on the brain, and professionals have been able to capitalize on this to use music therapy to treat some long-term brain injuries. Even in cases where individuals have lost speech abilities, music has been able to trigger some speech recognition and eventually help those who suffer from brain injuries regain full speech. A great and inspiring high-profile example is Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. After Gifford suffered a brain injury as the result of a gunshot wound, she couldn’t speak in sentences at all, but she could sing. Her speech therapist sung “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with Gifford until she regained enough confidence and ability to start forming full sentences again.
Even for individuals who don’t suffer from injuries as serious as Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s, music can be a powerful healing force. “Entrainment” is a concept being studied now. It describes the phenomenon in which the rhythms of our bodies can synch up with rhythms in music we are listening to. Through entrainment, people with high anxiety and stress levels can achieve physical and relaxation through listening to relaxing music. People with focus issues can achieve heightened focus by listening to music at a moderate tempo without too many distracting elements. No matter what affliction a person suffers, the healing power of music can be of some help. This is true for elders with emotional and psychological issues too.
Music Therapy for Elders
For seniors suffering from memory loss issues, music therapy can be an invaluable tool to regain some memory function. Whereas the brain forgets words and names and places easily, melodies are harder to forget and stick with people. By playing a song that a person associates with a time and place, music therapists can trigger some recall in patients, even those suffering from memory loss due to advanced dementia. Music brings patients back to where they were when they heard the song and had a significant experience, helping them regain other memories along the way.
For elders who have suffered a stroke, music therapy can help with speech recovery, somewhat like Congresswoman Gifford’s example. Stroke victims are more able to form speech patterns around songs they have sung many times than create sentences, and many have found that singing along with a familiar song is the first time they are able to speak again at all. As stroke victims regain their confidence and are more able to recognize speech patterns after listening to music and singing, they can translate these skills into conversational speech as well, and on average have much faster speech recovery times than victims who don’t listen to music.
Finally, professional therapists have even been able to use music therapy to relieve the symptoms of intense grief. Grief counselors use the power of entrainment to help those suffering from grief-induced anxiety reach a more healthy cardiovascular rhythm, which, in turn, reduces stress. Creating a compilation CD of pleasant songs that bring a grieving person back to happy times in their lives, or calming songs to help maintain healthier breathing patterns and reduce stress, can help those who suffer from intense grief manage their symptoms long after a therapy session is over.
Music Therapy is Just One Example of Non-Conventional Routes to Happiness
Music therapy is a very cutting edge and exciting area, with a lot of potential to relieve the symptoms and aid the recovery for individuals experiencing everything from dementia to speech loss. But, it isn’t the only non-conventional route to happiness out there, or the only thing that people facing these issues can turn to. That being said, music therapy has been very helpful for a lot of people, and can help seniors who are just stressed out or grieving in addition to those who suffer the effects of the illnesses or injuries mentioned above.
All of the ideas above can help increase the health of seniors. But, they do so by increasing happiness as well. When you think about living a healthy life, you have to consider a lot more than just living without the burden of disease. The science is there and shows conclusively that the happier that you are, especially in old age, the healthier you will be. Not just healthy in a holistic sense of finding balance, but “healthy” in the conventional definition that we urge you to move away from. Happy seniors have better health outcomes along a wide range of issues, from heart disease to depression. You can’t divorce the two, and you need to think about happiness when you talk about health and consider the pursuit of happiness as an important factor in living a healthy life.
As a senior looking for ways to be healthy, start with the ideas we mentioned above. Owning a pet decreases feelings of loneliness, and increases overall happiness. Massage therapy and the power of touch can help create feelings of connection and reduce stress. Pursuing a romantic relationship can help seniors feel like there is always someone there. Re-investing in family relationships can produce unique benefits, since family is bonded in a unique way. Music therapy can treat a wide range of maladies and help seniors find happiness. But, don’t stop there. Keep searching for the things that make you happy, and be honest with yourself if you aren’t finding happiness in what you are doing. The more time you put into trying to live a happy life, the better. Health will follow.
*This blog was first published here: Sunshine Retirement Living