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Why Seniors Need a Vitality Plan to Maintain Independence

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For seniors, there are four pillars of healthy aging: physical health, emotional health, spiritual health and financial health.

There's an increasing amount of focus on that last one, because many Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers are woefully underprepared for the cost of retirement. But there hasn't been perhaps enough focus on retirement planning to shore up the remaining three pillars of positive aging.

And that's the crux of retirement consultant Kay Van Norman's work. A well-known speaker, wellness consultant and senior care expert, she is the founder and president of Brilliant Aging, a consulting firm designed to help people age with purpose and vitality.

In addition to helping businesses identify and realize opportunities in the healthy aging space, Van Norman and Brilliant Aging work with senior living organizations to plan and implement elder health initiatives, create and activate wellness cultures, fight ageism and promote positive aging.

One of the cornerstones of her consulting work is the idea that seniors need to build their "vitality portfolios" — planned assets that will support their physical, emotional and spiritual wellness as they age — just as they would invest to support their future financial needs.

In a sense, she advocates that seniors make every effort to "bank" wellness. Here's how.

You must make a vitality plan.

Ideally, you've had a financial plan in place for a long time and have been following it to the letter. If you invested diligently and shrewdly, it's yielding financial growth.

But what about your net wellness worth? How's your physical health? Are you fit and able to maintain your independence? Are you beginning to feel your age early? Or, worse, are you suffering from avoidable chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiopulmonary disease or kidney disease?

If you didn't start planning for your vitality earlier in life, it's not too late to recover some lost opportunity and improve your overall wellness.

As in retirement planning, you need to start out by answering a simple question: how long do you expect to live? If you're in your early 70s and feeling like a 50-year-old, it's not unreasonable to plan for another 20 or 30 years.

Now, you need to map out what you'll need to have in place to maintain your physical health, emotional health and spiritual health over the full course of your remaining years.

Think about function.

We've all heard stories about so-and-so's great-grandmother who mowed her own lawn until she was in her late 80s and lived to be 105, or the centenarian who ran marathons. In each case, what was usually the "secret"?

Usually, a lifetime of moderation and discipline.

To maintain our independence well into our late adulthood, we need to protect and promote our physical health. We need to get good nutrition, proper rest and regular exercise. We need to practice effective stress management. And we need to do those things every day.

Van Norman calls strength, mobility and endurance "mission critical” assets for maintaining independence.

"Optimizing function through physical activity is the most underused healthy aging strategy available today," she advised. But, she cautioned, "it’s easy to disregard functional changes that happen gradually."

""Strength declines approximately 1-1 ½ percent per year after about age 30," she observed. "That doesn’t sound like a lot until you do the math. If you’re not regularly challenging your strength, you’re losing it — on average about 60 percent by age 70 and 75 percent by age 80."

The answer, then, is to put "assets" in place to hedge against that loss. Institute a daily exercise program to build up strength, slow physical decline and "bank" health.

Protect your mind.

Applying this philosophy of building up vitality "assets" to your cognitive, emotional and spiritual health, you should continue to engage your curiosity over the entire course of your life.

Never allow yourself to succumb to a mundane, monotonous routine — it's the enemy of happiness. Doing the same thing repeatedly, day after day, fosters boredom. And it may even contribute to the development of dementia.

So, read about topics that interest you. Expand your horizons. Work to set aside money that will allow you to travel places you've always wanted to see, or to go do things you've always wanted to do.

The more you challenge your mind, the longer and more faithfully it will serve you.

Maintain strong ties and build up your social safety net.

Eventually, we all come to rely on others. No matter how well we protect our physical and mental health, age will catch up with us at some point. And, when it does, we need to have assets in place that we can fall back on to maintain our vitality and sense of purpose.

Failing to build and maintain social ties with your family, neighbors and members of your broader community in early adulthood and middle age can lead to loneliness and isolation in your later years.

To build this part of your vitality portfolio, you need to get out and socialize. Meet others. Volunteer in the community. Participate in interest groups. Visit often with friends and loved ones.

The happiest, healthiest seniors in the world are those who know they'll have the friends they'll need, when they need them.

Ready to learn more about building your vitality portfolio?

If you were an early bird, you already bought your tickets to the now sold-out TriHealth Refresh Your Soul positive aging conference, presented by the Alzheimer's Association of Greater Cincinnati, on March 12 at Xavier University's Cintas Center.

Kay Van Norman will be one of our keynote speakers, and she'll discuss ways that you and your family caregivers can start building your vitality portfolio, no matter what age you are or what your current health status is. There's always ground to be gained by action.

Click here to learn more about this year's conference, and if you didn’t get tickets in time, keep checking this blog for recaps and more information about how seniors can bank wellness assets to live well into the future.


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Kristin Davenport
February 21, 2018
Kristin Davenport is the Director of Communications for Episcopal Retirement Services (ERS). Kristin leads ERS’s efforts to share stories that delight and inspire through social media, online content, annual reports, magazines, newsletters, public relations, and events. Kristin earned her BFA in graphic design from Wittenberg University. She joined ERS after a 25-year career as a visual journalist and creative director in Cincinnati. Kristin is passionate about making Cincinnati a dementia-inclusive city. She is a Lead SAIDO Learning Supporter and a member of the ‘Refresh Your Soul’ conference planning team at ERS. Kristin and her husband Alex, live in Lebanon, Ohio with their 2 daughters. She also serves as a Trustee and the President of the Lebanon Food Pantry and is a board member for ArtScape Lebanon.

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