Staying active and engaged is integral to maintaining good physical and mental health into our senior years.

“Physical activity becomes even more important as we age, and getting regular physical exercise keeps our hearts and bodies healthy,” explains Dr. Samir K. Sinha, Director of Geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University Health Network Hospitals and Provincial Lead, Ontario’s Seniors Strategy.

Dr. Sinha points to a Swedish study which attempted to differentiate lifestyle behaviours in people aged 75 and over. “The study found a five-and-a-half-year life expectancy difference based on three things: one, participating in regular exercise; two, not smoking; and three, staying active and socially engaged,” say Dr. Sinha. “It’s not just about adding years to life, it’s about adding life to years.”

Spending too much time sitting, reclining or lying down can have hugely negative impacts on health as we age.

“People who consistently and continually engage in these types of sedentary behaviours during the day also have higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer,” says Dr. Thy Dinh, Senior Research Associate, Health Economics, with the Conference Board of Canada’s Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care. “These diseases will lower your quality of life and how long you live.”

Don’t disregard your mental health

Getting out into the community and being sociable is a great way for older adults to relieve some of the mental health issues associated with aging and isolation. “No matter your health condition, if you can go out and play cards, go bowling or do any activity, you feel better inside and your whole life is improved,” says June Szeman, President of the Retired Teachers of Ontario (RTO/ERO),  an organization known for its comprehensive group insurance program; local District social network providing goodwill, wellness programs, recreational and leisure activities; and travel opportunities for its members.

Peggy Hawthorn, Secretary and Health Issues Advisor at the United Senior Citizens of Ontario, echoes Szeman’s thoughts. Hawthorn says: “Being socially active also helps people remain more mentally alert and reduces the chances of them getting conditions like dementia as they age.”

Support for caregivers

Professional, nurse-led programs provide much needed support to caregivers, who play such an important role in the lives of older adults suffering with medical conditions. When the wife of Burlington, ON resident and RTO/ERO member Henry Lewis was placed in a nursing home, his extended healthcare plan provided a report on Lewis’ wife’s conditions by a registered nurse. “That report did two things for me,” explains Lewis. “One, I had something I could refer to and read and go back to with good information, and the other was I had a real nurse out there looking after me.”

“Easy access to information, workshops, and community resources are helping older generations to age well and stay engaged.”

Be aware of community support and services

Get to know what services are available for older adults in your local community. “Many times, people suffer in silence,” says Dr. Sinha. “Older adults may restrict their mobility around the community by not knowing about community transportation and other services run exclusively for seniors.”

Easy access to information, workshops, and community resources are helping older generations to age well and stay engaged. “When you can call and speak to somebody about your health concerns or those of someone in your family, or coordinate rides for people who can no longer drive, it makes the whole health care process easier to manage,” says Szeman.

Tips for improving and maintaining health

“Most important is to make sure you have a primary care provider whom you trust and can work with,” explains Dr. Sinha. “That person is going to be your best partner in helping you manage your health concerns as you age.”

“Physical exercise can enhance not just the physical wellbeing but mental wellbeing as well.”

For seniors who do require medical or social support, customized health benefit plans can help to remove the financial burden. “Some insurance products suggest that you don’t need coverage past the age of 65,” explains Richard Harrison, VP, Plan Benefits, Johnson Inc. “But the province only covers a very limited bundle of drugs past age 65 under the Ontario Drug Benefit plan. You could end up self-insuring for a long period of time.”

Ultimately, it’s up to you to take the necessary steps to improve overall quality of life. The simplest of changes can make a big difference.

Active seniors and travel

More and more seniors are travelling in and out of Canada, and the risks associated with unexpected illness or injury should be guarded against, says Harrison. “The financial impact can be devastating, when Canadians travel to other parts of the world with inadequate medical insurance.” Make sure you understand any application for insurance you complete, “or better yet, choose programs that offer extended trip durations in excess of three months, plus the flexibility to choose non-medical supplemental travel insurance for longer trips,” he added.

Make a change today

Dr. Sharon Straus, Canada Research Chair in Knowledge Translation and Quality of Care, says that it’s never too late to start being physically active and focusing on your health. “Physical exercise can enhance not just the physical wellbeing but mental wellbeing as well,” says Dr. Straus. “Overall, it improves quality of life.”