23 Keys to Aging Well on a Shoestring Budget
The U.S. population is aging as baby boomers swell the ranks of the senior cohort. By 2040, more than 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older. Getting older isn't easy for anyone, and the physical and financial costs can be substantial. But there are ways to age well that don't cost a lot of money.
Maintaining good physical health is a crucial part of aging well. A growing body of research indicates that one of the simplest forms of exercise, walking, is an excellent way to stay healthy. According to the American Heart Association, walking just 30 minutes a day produces a wide range of benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, improved blood pressure, weight control, and a reduced risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, and diabetes. Walking is also one of the cheapest forms of exercise, requiring little more than a decent pair of shoes and a clear path.
Building and maintaining stamina through aerobic exercise is essential, but there are other ways to improve physical health. In particular, working with weights and other forms of resistance promotes better balance, stronger bones, weight control, and improved sleep. The benefits are so pronounced that the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the use of weights for all people over the age of 50. And while the advantages of weightlifting are substantial, the cost doesn't have to be. You can use household objects including cans of food or milk jugs filled with sand or gravel, and rubber resistance bands cost just a few dollars each. Check sites such as Craigslist for good deals on sets of hand weights and simple barbells. Many communities have gyms with inexpensive memberships; check for senior discounts.
Americans aren't famous for their healthy diets. The country that brought the world Coca-Cola, cheese-filled pizza crust, and supersize french fries still has a lot to learn about healthy eating and the benefits of homemade food. But making healthy food at home can cost less than buying unhealthy food. For example, a roast chicken is a healthier option than a hamburger combo meal. And oatmeal is cheaper and better for you than diner pancakes and sausage.
Researchers are learning more every day about the benefits of getting enough sleep. They include improved memory, reduced inflammation, weight control, less stress, better attentiveness, and -- best of all -- a longer lifespan. The advantages of sleep are so overwhelming that the only question is how to make sure you get enough. Getting to bed early always helps, and avoiding electronic screens before bedtime has been shown to encourage sleep. Naps during the day are another good option. Try a 20-minute power nap in the afternoon to improve your focus.
Physical health is important, but the mind needs exercise too. Researchers have found that mental stimulation benefits the brain in the same way physical stimulation benefits the body. Simple mental workouts such as puzzles, cards, and board games have been shown to help maintain cognitive function in older people. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that older people who challenge their brains regularly with puzzles are less likely to develop dementia. Physical activity also helps maintain normal brain function. There are many options for inexpensive or free puzzles and games. Local libraries are good sources, and many "brain games" are available online.
Puzzles are a fun way to keep your mind sharp, but some people are looking for more serious intellectual stimulation. A good way to give your mind a regular workout is to learn something new. Love Paris? Take up French. Interested in the Civil War? Bone up on 19th-century American history. Like computers? Learn how to code. Developing knowledge in new fields helps keep you connected to the larger world, and wrestling with new ideas is a good way to exercise your brain. There are many ways to explore new fields for little or no money. The library and Web are obvious starting points. For more formal pursuits, many colleges and universities reduce or eliminate tuition for older students.
While it's wise to focus on your own mental and physical well-being as you age, it's important to maintain connections with other people. For many people, family comes first, and spending time with family is an important and healthy part of life. It's also important to keep up with old friends and, when you lose touch, make new ones. A fun way to stay connected is to enjoy healthy activities together. Go for a walk, make a nice (inexpensive) dinner for a group, take (reduced tuition) classes together. Like mental and physical exercise, spending time with friends and family keeps paying dividends over time.
Giving back to the community is a good way to stay engaged while helping others. Most communities have volunteer organizations that are looking for help. Food banks and soup kitchens always need a helping hand, and local schools are usually looking for tutors. The list of national organizations that need volunteers is long and includes Habitat for Humanity, Easter Seals, and the American Red Cross. Online services such as Volunteer Match make it easy to connect with groups eager for help.
Everyone has an interesting story to tell. Why not put yours down on paper for future generations? Think how satisfying it would be to read your great-grandmother's life story, written in her own words. Consider giving that gift to your descendants, or at least to some future historian. You can use a free blogging platform, or a 99-cent notebook, to collect your thoughts.
Aging makes us aware of the fragility and impermanence of life. This can be a difficult realization for many people, and it makes sense to deal with the emotional turmoil it can bring. Religious groups are good sources of support, but even more secular-minded people have plenty of options to explore. The important thing is to address the spiritual aspects of aging, in whatever way makes sense to you. And although it can be a challenging process, the fiscal toll is negligible.