Growing old is not for the faint of heart. In the name of celebrating the fathers, uncles, grandfathers and great-grandfathers who have helped shape our lives, let’s take a moment to consider the unique challenges that aging men face. The more openly we discuss the social and psychological challenges unique to the men we love, the better equipped we’ll be to help make their senior years the best they can be.
Isolation is Real
Elderly men run a high risk of feeling socially and emotionally isolated in later life. Men have smaller social networks than women in general, and when you add to that the shorter life expectancy of your average American male, it’s not uncommon for the guys who are left to find themselves without companionship or a social group. More and more elderly men are living on their own. In fact, the number of senior men living alone is expected to rise a whopping 65 percent by 2030.
The overall concern about the increasing number of elderly men living alone stems from fact that the “typical male” traits of men in the baby boomer generation, traits like fierce independence and stoicism, might have a detrimental effect on their mental and physical health in old age. We’re talking about guys who are not interested in living in a senior community or assisted living facility. The reason for this is often twofold. Not only can the cost of such a move feel prohibitive, especially for someone raised in the thrift of the Depression Era, but also the historical mortality gap between women and men has conditioned senior care over the years to cater much more to the female gender.
Author Pam Gerhardt provides a poignant example of the issues associated with gendered senior living in an article for the Washington Post:
“I noted the doilies and chintz while searching for a suitable assisted living facility for my father,” the article begins. “Right away, I knew I was up against a powerful force. The female problem.”
It’s quite clear that as more men live into their senior years, the ways our society thinks of senior care will have to change. Doilies don’t make sense for just everyone. But social change of that scale rarely happens overnight. Instead of waiting around for institutions to get their acts together, there are actionable steps that the friends and family of senior men can take to help them stay active and engaged while still living at home.
Give Him an Excuse to Be Active
Physical activity is a great way for seniors to channel their energy. Although few elderly men are likely to be gung-ho about sprinting around a track, they might be interested in enrolling in classes that are catered to bodies that have a little more wear and tear than your typical gym rat.
Age-friendly exercises like yoga, tai chi, and swimming help strengthen muscles, improve balance, and increase range of motion in a gentle yet effective manner. In addition to the physical benefits of the exercises themselves, classes that are geared exclusively towards seniors make for a great addition to their daily routine and can be a fun way to hang out with other people and beat the isolation blues.
Help Him Engage with the Times
As seniors age and pass on their responsibilities to the next generation, it’s all too easy to start feeling left behind. We all have our own ways of staying tuned-in to society (family, work, church, etc) but once the traditional mechanisms for social engagement like jobs and spouses are no longer a part of a person’s daily life, it can be hard to find a way in.
Family and friends can help seniors engage in modern times simply by having the same kinds of conversations with them that they have with others. Don’t limit your conversations to just the day to day stuff; broaden the scope of your shared world by talking about what’s happening in the news. Ask them what they think about all the changes in healthcare policy lately — discuss the pros and cons of the various health insurance policies available to young people today. Ask if they consider it an improvement on what they had when they were working, or if they think the whole thing has just gone to pot.
Just because most seniors are removed from certain political issues due to the nature of programs like Medicare, it doesn’t mean they’re not interested in the debate and following the trends. Not only are seniors invested for the future of their children and grandchildren, but with all the wild changes lately, even programs like Medicare are in flux. Healthcare educators are on high alert as one of the several big healthcare changes of 2017 takes off and lawmakers begin the process of phasing-in MARCA — the “MA-” in MARCA stands for Medicare Access — a new payment framework for the Medicare program. The policy change will not only impact healthcare providers, but people of all ages as well.
Just Be There
The best gift you can offer the senior men in your life is your time and attention. Set up a predictable schedule, let them know you’ll visit every Monday and Wednesday after work, and don’t let anything get in the way of that time.
Most importantly, be sure to hide doilies around his house whenever you visit, just to keep him on his toes.
Brooke Faulkner is a senior rights advocate and mother of two in the Pacific Northwest. She loves spending time with friends and family at the assisted living facility near her home, and has collected more stories there than she can count.