5 tips for staying active and healthy in the post-work years
DULUTH, Minn. — Your retirement date is approaching, and you're looking forward to the new you. You've never had the time before, but now you're going to exercise regularly and practice healthier eating habits, right?
"There's a lot of promises," said Dr. Addie Licari of the optimistic talk from patients at St. Luke's Mount Royal Medical Clinic in Duluth, where she practices. " 'I'm going to lose weight, and I'm going to exercise.'
"Then you see them in a year, and it has not happened."
But there are ways to avoid the pitfalls and improve the chances of a long, fulfilling, healthy retirement, experts say. We talked to them, and to people well into their retirement years. Here's what they suggested.
1. Stay connected
"We all need to feel as if we are engaged with the world around us," said Georgia Lane, program developer for the seven-county Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging.
That could mean a retired CEO providing consulting services for business students.
"There's no 'one-size-fits-all' for all volunteer opportunities because people have lived a lot of different lives, and stuffing envelopes and calling bingo is not going to be the way of volunteerism (for everyone)."
Licari, a family practice doctor with an interest in geriatrics, said staying socially engaged is her first piece of advice for new retirees.
"We actually have very good evidence that ... the one thing that prevents or helps people not to get early dementia is talking with people, having friends, having volunteer opportunities, interacting with people on a daily basis," she said.
Voula Heffernan experienced a void when she first retired from her job as a social worker in the Hermantown schools about a dozen years ago, she said.
"At first it was really hard because I missed all of my colleagues and the kind of work that I did," said Heffernan of Hermantown.
"I really did get a lot back from helping others, and then in retirement, there you are."
You wonder if you still have value, she said.
She soon found she had more time for social connections with neighbors and other retirees who had been her colleagues, Heffernan added.
She has a walking buddy, and her gardening is something she can share with friends and neighbors in the condominium association where Heffernan lives with her husband, former News Tribune columnist Jim Heffernan.
She has done volunteer work, too, but has sought a balance between that and taking time to "just be," Heffernan said.
The idea that retirees just want to fade off into the sunset is an "ageist" concept, Lane said.
"It's really patronizing to think that people just want to be entertained," she added.
2. Plan to stay healthy
"Make a plan and stick to it for becoming (physically fit) or maintaining your physical fitness," Licari said. "A lot of people retire with grand plans to start an exercise program because now they have time to do it. And then they find themselves just as sedentary."
Ron McKinnon keeps connected and maintains a healthy lifestyle by playing two or three rounds of golf a week and walking 4½ miles on the Lakewalk with a group "every morning, rain or shine, snow or cold."
McKinnon, 80, of Hermantown retired from an administrative job with the Duluth public schools in 1993. He took on some part-time roles after retiring but soon realized he didn't need to do those things to stay socially engaged, active and healthy, he said.
His wife, Jean, makes sure he eats right, McKinnon added.
"Aside from having, probably, good genes and a wife that takes very good care of me, I try to keep active," he said. "I don't know that I've had any major plan, but those are the things that I do. I attribute those things to keeping me in pretty good shape."
Exercise, diet and healthy choices need to continue throughout life, Lane said. It's never too late to quit smoking, she added.
One thing to watch out for, Licari said, is an increase in social drinking, which can have an impact on weight or overall health.
3. Try new things
"There's research that says people are more likely to take risks and be creative as they age," Lane reported. "Which also debunks the thought that you can't teach an old dog new tricks."
Lane cites findings of the late Gene Cohen, who founded the National Center for Creative Aging.
"His premise is that people do things because of an aging brain, not in spite of it."
So if you've always had a secret desire to sing in public but have been too busy — or too inhibited — retirement might be the ideal time to join a singing group. Or it could be the time to take a painting class for the first time.
4. Manage chronic conditions
By age 65, one in three people will have one or more chronic conditions, Lane said. "You have to learn how to manage that."
The Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging and the Duluth Area Family YMCA, periodically offer six-week workshops on how to live well with chronic conditions.
Heffernan, who has arthritis and other health conditions, said dealing with them can be part of the challenge of growing older.
"You just can't do some of the things you used to do and you learn to be careful so you can keep doing those things you enjoy," she said.
5. Make sure you're covered
Licari told of a nurse who retired and had to wait 18 months for a medical appointment because of a gap in her coverage.
"Make sure you know what you will be covered for, when your government insurance or your spouse's insurance starts to work for you and what that entails," she said.
Even with a good plan, aging will take a toll, Heffernan and McKinnon said.
"God knows I'm slowing down, but I'm still able to walk every day and still able to play golf," McKinnon said.