By BILL THOMAS, MD
As a geriatrician with decades in the field, it's clear to me that the human body is built for aging.
While it is true that our maximum physical strength, vitality, and reproductive vigor come and go before we reach our 30th birthday, we are well equipped for the task of cultivating optimum strength during the many decades that follow.
During that time, we all become more aware of our own distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and research indicates that the more time each day we spend using our strengths to do what we do best, the less likely we are to experience worry, stress, anger, sadness and even physical pain. Making use of our strengths also results in higher productivity and altruism. In other words, the strengths-based approach to life can lead us all toward greater happiness and well-being.
Overcoming ageism and embracing aging make it possible to create a life path that is centered on strength. An abundance of research shows that older people can build muscle mass and gain physical strength, can become more mentally and emotionally resilient, and are often eager to connect their lives to larger emotional and spiritual purposes. Older people want what everyone else wants: to live life on their terms, in the place and manner of their choosing. They want to live lives that matter to them and to others.
Despite the stereotype of old age as a time of weakness, all older people possess strength.
Most typically older people forget that strength can be nourished, nurtured and increased at every age. Our physical strength and emotional resilience (which is derived from relationships and a sense of belonging) are both important to interdependence and well-being.
Aging-related changes in strength are closely correlated with parallel changes in what is known as reserve capacity. Drivers understand the concept of "reserve capacity" in terms of "pep" or "pick-up." It's the ability to give that extra effort that's needed to meet a particular challenge. The 30-year-old has deep reserves to draw upon. The 90-year-old also has strength and reserve capacity, but the amount of reserve is less compared to that of a younger person.
Normally these differences in reserve capacity matter little, but not every day is normal.
We all encounter unexpected events and illnesses that stress our bodies and push us away from that comfortable place at the center of our reserve capacity. Small events and
challenges push us a small distance from the center. Large events and challenges push us a long way from the center.
The end of life is the day any living thing encounters a stressor that pushes it beyond the boundary of its reserve capacity. The bigger its reserve capacity, the less likely that day will be today. The smaller its reserve the more likely that the end is near.
A focus on strength and an appreciation for research that shows how physical strength and emotional resilience can be increased regardless of a person's age or ability gives us a new way of thinking about helpfulness. But getting started on getting stronger can be challenging because declinist and ageist beliefs are prevalent among older people and their families. This makes it doubly important for everyone to have access to the advanced knowledge and coaching techniques needed to help older people build their strength and reserve capacity.
Let's all do what we can to support strength at every age.
Dr. Bill Thomas, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has dedicated his life to working with older populations. He's spearheaded initiatives to change the way we treat our elders: The Eden Alternative, which matches care according to the individual; the Green House Project to construct small, home-like environments where people can live a full and interactive life; and Milo, a service that helps people thrive at home by building strength and improving well-being. Thomas is the author multiple books, most recently Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life (Simon & Schuster).