A Truly Golden Age Dr. Benjamin Liptzin Says Getting Older Doesn’t Have To Mean Feeling Old

Getting older doesn’t take planning. It just happens.


Growing into the elder years successfully, on the other hand, does require a serious look ahead. But many older Americans don’t take an active role in their own aging, allowing boredom, depression, and unnecessary physical weakness to creep in.

That’s the message often spread by Dr. Benjamin Liptzin, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry for Baystate Health System. Although many physical drawbacks of advancing age can’t be avoided, they can at least be tempered by the right lifestyle choices, the right attitude, and — yes — proper planning.
This is a concept that he brings not only to aging Americans and their caretakers, but to young medical students, who can be just as prone to false assumptions about the elderly.

“Young physicians and medical students in training see a lot of old people in hospital settings where they’re sick,” Liptzin said, “and students sometimes think being old means being sick and decrepit — and that’s just not the case.”

But to avoid those pitfalls of aging, he said, takes a certain measure of control over one’s lifestyle.

“The concept of successful aging is knowing how to maximize your well-being and functioning late in life,” he told The Healthcare News, “and there are a number of suggestions for how to do that.”

Taking Charge

Liptzin said that people have to first realize what aging is — and what it is not.

“When most people talk about normal aging, it is true that, over time, we notice changes in various biological functions. We get grey hair, we get wrinkles — those kinds of things. But much of what we think of as aging is related to diseases or lifestyle choices — I mean, if you have a stroke or get a heart attack, that has more of an impact on functioning than just getting older.”

That’s why making the right physical choices, starting as early as possible, is crucial to successful aging, because those lifestyle choices can reduce the odds of suffering a debilitating disease — not to mention simply making one feel better day by day.

“That involves things like not smoking — or stopping smoking if you’ve already started — exercising regularly, eating properly and maintaining a desirable weight, drinking alcohol in moderation, and treating illnesses and keeping up with health maintenance,” Liptzin said.

But health is also mental and emotional, he stressed, and this is where many older Americans suffer — by not keeping their minds busy.

“There are some psychosocial strategies,” he said. “It’s helpful to stay involved with other people, to be connected to a social circle and a community. That also means staying involved with diverse activities, both mental and physical. That means going for a walk, doing crossword puzzles, reading the news.”

One problem, Liptzin said, is that although everyone should strive for as much independence as possible, people often need a little help, whether from others or from devices such as canes, walkers, and hearing aids. And to many, these are negative signs of getting older — admissions of age to be avoided, as it were.

“It’s better to go for walks with a cane or walker than to lock yourself in your home because you’re embarrassed to have people see you with a physical ailment,” he said. “People are willing to wear eyeglasses, but they’re more reluctant, for some reason, to get hearing aids, and that can limit social interaction and make them more isolated.” In many cases, he added, they blame their hearing loss on others, accusing them of not speaking loud enough.

The fact is, Liptzin said, while it is normal to experience some physical weakness and diminishment of the faculties as one ages, making a commitment to health maintenance and healthy living — and a willingness to remain active and social — can make a real difference.

In fact, he said, as Baby Boomers retire and create more openings in the job market, many Americans expect to take advantage by continuing to work beyond age 65, both to make money and to stay connected.

“One of the things we’re learning is that people who have taken good care of themselves — and are lucky, and have good genes — can be healthy and active into their 80s and 90s,” he told The Healthcare News. “I had a patient whose father had his 100th birthday party, then got on a train to go to a meeting of a national organization in which he was still active.

Liptzin said studies have shown that exercise and mild weight training in long-term-care facilities has helped people who had used a walker switch to a cane, and those who had relied on a cane to walk independently.

“The idea that aging is inevitably a period of decline and decrepitude just isn’t the case anymore,” he said. “We have to change people’s attitudes about aging and encourage them to be as active as possible.”

Great Expectations

Whether the elder years become a negative time, Liptzin said, depends largely on what one’s expectations are.

“Twenty years ago, people turning 65 had grown up in the Depression and World War II, and they benefited from improvements in medical care and the development of Social Security and Medicare. Their lives turned out much better than expected,” he said.

It remains to be seen how those social programs help Baby Boomers, he added, but already, many Americans around age 60 have experienced a sudden devaluing of their retirement accounts because of market shifts, and that can be a difficult adjustment — one that can bring on feelings of depression and helplessness.

That said, Liptzin was quick to note, the common assumption among many people that depression is more common among the elderly is simply untrue — serious clinical depression is more prevalent among young adults, and women in particular.

One reason for the misconception, he said, is that older people who attempt suicide tend to choose more violent methods, such as shooting or hanging, while younger people are more likely to try medication overdoses or other methods that don’t result in death as often — and, therefore, the successful suicide rates and clinical depression rates don’t add up.

“Most older people have a positive attitude, and most rate their health as good or excellent because they’re comparing themselves to their peers, not to whom they were when they were 20,” Liptzin said. In fact, many elderly Americans appreciate the many perks they enjoy in society, from shopping and dining discounts to strong government assistance.

But in the end, happiness in the golden years often comes down to how well one has prepared for it, not just psychologically, but practically as well — and that includes financial planning.

“Certainly, it helps your well-being if you have the financial resources to do what you want to do, in terms of lifestyle or pleasurable activities, but you also have to have the resources to care for yourself if you have health needs,” Liptzin said.

“It’s also good to plan ahead psychologically if you’re expecting to retire, and have some idea what you’ll do and whom you want to spend time with. That leads into social planning — what kinds of activities you like, your social network. And physical planning should start earlier in life; how you’ll take care of yourself physically is important.”

The other major component is spiritual planning, and this is something people naturally begin to contemplate as they get older, Liptzin said — the meaning of life, their legacy, what they’ll leave behind. The earlier all these types of planning begin, he insisted, the more positive the transition into the elder years will be.

“The more time people have to plan and anticipate, the better they’ll do at coping,” he said. “People need to do a better job anticipating their future.”
And with the proper attitude and lifestyle choices, it can certainly be a future worth anticipating.

Comments are closed.