By Carrie Roche

Your body didn’t come with an owner’s manual stacked with secrets on living a long and healthy life-the kind that makes you want to get up and greet the morning. So as you transition into the golden years, you may have questions about how to improve your mind, body, and lifestyle. Here are answers to commonly-asked aging questions:

Can I boost my memory?

It’s true that aging naturally causes those memory slips that make us feel older than we are. In reality, though, there’s a wide range of activities that can improve memory. For instance, keep a list of daily activities on a calendar or planner so you can check it throughout the day.

Since blood flow to the brain is a key element in keeping it in tip-top shape, don’t neglect cardiovascular health either. In other words, better brain power comes from sticking to the regimen your doctor already recommends: eat right, exercise, and take cardiovascular medications exactly as they’re prescribed.

Also, check the medicine cabinet. Both prescription and non-prescription meds can create mental confusion either by themselves or when combined with other medicines. If you think lapses are triggered by medications, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about possible alternatives.

While it’s embarrassing to forget an old friend’s name, it can be downright dangerous to forget to turn off a stove burner, so if lapses continue be sure to check in with your health care professional.

What can I do to improve my chances of living completely independently?

One way to increase your chance for a completely independent lifestyle is to boost functional flexibility. This isn’t the kind of stretch that makes you kick like a Rockette. Rather functional flexibility is the type of stretch that allows you to safely step into and out of the bathtub or reach into the back of a cabinet. Gentle exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi can increase your flexibility so you don’t pull a muscle or find yourself sprawled on the floor after a fall.

Functional strength is important for longevity, too. If you can’t pull a bag of groceries out of the trunk, you can find yourself relying on others more than you’d like. Weight training and weight bearing exercises, like yoga, can build the muscles you need to live life without assistance.

It’s not all about your exercise regimen, either. Make sure you create a safe and functional home environment. Use jar or can openers to get into that can of soup or use a handheld showerhead to make bathing easier. Also modify your house to suit your changing needs. For example, replace a tub with a sit-down shower or install easier-to-use cabinet handles.

Can I get the help I need but still maintain some level of independence?

Need transportation to doctor’s appointments? Do you need an extra set of hands to prepare even a basic meal? Part of living a healthy life is knowing when to ask for help. Fortunately, you don’t have to give up all of your independence at the first sign of a physical or medical challenge.

In-home care services can provide a variety of the non-medical assistance you might need to complete the tasks of day-to-day living, from grocery shopping to letter writing to light housework. These caregivers can be an ideal choice if you need temporary help while recovering from an illness or surgery. However, insurance doesn’t always cover this type of caregiver, so be sure to check with your plan.

Assisted living communities are just that-living with assistance. Residents are encouraged to do as many tasks as they are comfortable with. A trained staff is available for activities you may have trouble with, such as dressing or taking daily medications. Many assisted living communities offer general classes, such as art or fitness, but they may also specialized classes for those with specific challenges like severe arthritis.

How can I make connections?

Old age isn’t for sissies. One of the hardest parts of growing old is watching friends and family leave your life. Some loved ones move; others lose touch; and yet still others pass away. This inevitable process can create feelings of loneliness.

Research as shown that strong social connections increase longevity. Experts say loved ones and friends provide emotional support and material aid during rough times, such as the death of a spouse or a chronic illness. Studies have linked social support to lower cardiovascular problems, lower levels of stress hormones, and fewer immune problems.

Group settings are a great way to battle those lonely feelings and increase longevity. Senior centers offer classes and activities that give you the social interaction that’s important for mental well-being. Assisted living centers and independent retirement communities are also an ideal way to connect with others. Not only do they offer activities, from bus trips to fitness classes, they also offer the built-in companionship that comes from a community setting.

Adding years to your life isn’t rocket science. Simply keep the mind sharp, build a healthy body, know when to ask for help, and stay connected.

Carrie M. Roche, RN is a registered nurse and expert in senior living. She works with seniors and independent living, assisted living, and retirement communities across the United States and internationally.

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