Aging and Wellness in Recovery, Part III
This is the final installment in a three-column series dealing with aging and wellness in recovery. The first two columns focused on threats to sobriety that often accompany aging and suggestions for counteracting these hazards, together with a preliminary examination of the qualitative aspects of wellness and recovery in our older years. This installment provides a more in-depth focus on shifts we may wish to take in both our outlook and behavior to maximize our enjoyment of quality sobriety, good health, and overall fulfillment in our later years.
As we grow older most of us develop an appreciation of the importance of taking better care of ourselves. This becomes both a challenge, as we become more aware of subtle and at times not so subtle signs of physical decline and associated limitations, and an opportunity. Aging presents us with the opportunity to embark on new avenues of growth, while concurrently paying more attention to our own needs that may have been neglected while striving for success in the fast lane, as well as becoming increasingly aware of unmet needs of those around us.
Optimizing Our Physical Health Status
Important aspects of enhancing our physical health status in our later years include pursuing robust physical fitness throughout our life span, nutritional fine-tuning, becoming serious about kicking nicotine addiction and other self-destructive behaviors, and last but not least preventive health maintenance. These dimensions of wellness and recovery, along with others, are covered in detail in my book The Wellness-Recovery Connection (2004). Presented below are highlights relevant to this column’s focus.
Pursuing Robust Physical Fitness
I firmly believe that regular vigorous exercise is by far the best health insurance we can give ourselves. Don’t let the ticking clock stop you; it’s never too late to get started! Many if not most communities have centers with specialized fitness programs tailored to seniors. In addition to providing a powerful motivation to keep moving, many participants derive huge benefits from the camaraderie afforded through these programs. Participating in an exercise class with fellow seniors with ages ranging from the fifties through the upper nineties can be an extremely motivating experience.
Special fitness challenges associated with aging include diminished body flexibility and muscular atrophy. Participating in yoga, Tai Chi, and other flexibility exercises—together with swimming and occasional indulgence in therapeutic massage—works wonders for many in fostering increased flexibility.
Dr. Michael Roisen, author of You on a Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management (2009), states that we lose an average of 5 percent of our muscle mass every ten years unless we do something about it. Fortunately, muscular atrophy is not an inevitable part of aging. Resistance training is the best antidote, combined with ensuring that our diets include sufficient protein. To avoid injury related to resistance training, make sure that the amount of weight you lift is appropriate to your current state of fitness.
In my book I devote two chapters to nutrition in recovery. I essentially recommend that people in recovery adopt healthy diets to help heal the body from damage associated with years of excessive drinking and drug use, while concurrently promoting optimal health.
I personally favor the dietary guidelines embodied in the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is based on nutritional practices prevalent in a region of rather long-lived people. This diet represents a healthy blending of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and other plant-based sources of complex carbohydrates and protein, combined with sensible allocations of fish, poultry, dairy products, and eggs, with minimal consumption of red meat and sugar.
I urge readers to strongly consider the Mediterranean diet pyramid as a basic guideline for making healthy food choices (“Mediterranean,” 2015). You can access a basic overview of the pyramid by visiting the website listed in the “References” section of this article. From that website you can also purchase a twenty-eight-day menu planning guide based on the Mediterranean diet pyramid. A note of caution: while wine is included in the pyramid as it constitutes a dietary staple for many Mediterraneans, those of us in recovery should obviously avoid all alcohol consumption.
As we grow older our metabolism tends to slow down, resulting in reduced requirements for caloric intake. It therefore behooves us to cut back on food consumption and/or increase our level of physical activity to avoid weight gain. The preceding section also highlighted the importance of consuming sufficient amounts of protein to avoid loss of muscle mass as we age. MedlinePlus estimates that 50 percent of older American do not get enough protein in their diets (Kamps, 2015). Particularly healthy sources of protein include beans, tofu and other soy products, egg whites, light dairy products, nuts, fish, and poultry.
Preventive Health Maintenance
Preventive health maintenance is concerned with monitoring our health status to identify potential health problems and significant risk factors early on and initiating effective corrective action.
An appropriate example is facing up to one’s nicotine addiction and taking decisive action to kick the habit. The majority of practicing alcoholics are also heavy smokers, and many if not most people entering treatment carry their nicotine addiction over into their recovery. Tobacco related illnesses are, in fact, the leading cause of death among people in recovery (Newport, 2004).
If you are still smoking or using other nicotine-delivering products such as e-cigarettes, I urge you to get help now. Programs and products to help stop smoking have grown increasingly sophisticated over the past two decades. Even if you are in your sixties, seventies or beyond, you stand to add years of joyful living to your life span by biting the bullet, seeking appropriate guidance, and making a decisive commitment to quit right now.
Another important aspect of preventive health maintenance entails undergoing periodic physical examinations and laboratory analyses directed toward early detection and initiation of treatment. Such periodic evaluations are an excellent investment in preserving our health and well-being, particularly if the evaluation is followed by a wellness-oriented review of pertinent findings by your primary physician or another skilled health professional.
To cite a personal example, early this year I reviewed the blood test findings from my physical exams over the past several years. In doing so I noticed a spike in several indicators associated with decreased kidney functioning. Wanting to head off any potential problems at the pass, I scheduled an appointment with my primary physician. She referred me to a nephrologist, who in turn scheduled additional tests that confirmed that I was experiencing moderate stage kidney disease, a rather common problem among older people.
Concurrently, I researched this topic on line to identify practical preventive measures I could initiate to help prevent further progression of this condition. In particular, I drastically curtailed my sodium intake, as my wife and I now assiduously read the labels on each food item we purchase. My most recent tests indicate that the relevant indices are moving back in the right direction. I now feel in control of the problem and will continue my self-care measures along with ongoing monitoring by my nephrologist.
Enhancing the Qualitative Dimension of Our Lives
As previously mentioned, our postretirement years provide an opportunity to focus our attention on previously neglected areas of our lives, including deepening our relations with those who are near and dear to us.
I believe that as we grow older it becomes particularly important to actively reflect on what kind of legacy we want to leave behind, and to get moving in that direction. In my own case, the decade following my formal retirement has enabled me to attempt to share my thoughts with others in a meaningful way through my writing and my activism on behalf of issues that are important to me. This era has also confronted me with several crises, which in turn have inspired me to devote a major portion of my energy to pursuing spiritual growth and a deeper connection with my higher power. This new direction in my life continues to have a major impact in regard to my marriage and my relations with others in my extended family. Again, the important thing for each of us is to focus on the life we want to live and the legacy we wish to leave behind, and then get busy with the legwork.
In closing, I hope this series will be helpful to you in working with clients in their older years.
Until next time—to your health!
Kamps, A. (2015). Nutritional deficiency in the elderly. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/532920-nutritional-deficiency-in-the-elderly/
“Mediterranean diet pyramid.” (2015). Retrieved from http://oldwayspt.org/resources/heritage-pyramids/mediterranean-pyramid/overview
Newport, J. (2004). The wellness-recovery connection: Charting your pathway to optimal health while recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Roizen, M. F., & Mehemet, O. C. (2009). You on a diet: The owner’s manual for waist management (rev. ed.). New York, NY: Scribner.