Staying active and maintaining balance as we age

A few weeks ago my husband and I set off on a journey to take his grandmother and her companion on a trip for her 80th birthday.  We decided to stay in the United States, as our 2 previous trips to Great Britain and Costa Rica seemed like they may be a little bit too much travel time for them now (the other trips were 3 and 5 years ago).  Each trip has been a learning experience for me, as I am the planner, travel agent, tour guide, and along with my husband, baggage handler.  My husband and I travel quite extensively, and so this is nothing new for us and I really enjoy planning our trips together.  It becomes much different when you are traveling with another couple, especially an elderly couple.

The first trip, I really had no idea how they would fare.  I had never been to Great Britain (I had only been to Ireland previously) and so I was planning everything from the information that I could find on the internet.  I thought I rocked it!  I made sure that every hotel or B&B that we stayed in was within 1-2 blocks of a Tube station, I bought our Oyster cards in advance, I made sure that their rooms were on ground floors or accessible by elevator, I thought I had come up with everything!  The first day that we got there, we decided to ride the Tube to the station by Big Ben.  The station was very close (in my mind), but by the time we got there we realized that there was no accessibility like we are so accustomed to in the United States.  We ended up walking down at least 3-4 flights of stairs and by the bottom, Grandma was upset!  We got on the train and had a great time, as they had never been on a subway.  Once we got off, we realized that at this particular stop, once again there were no elevators/escalators and we had to climb up stairs.  This time I think it must have been 4-5 long flights of stairs – needless to say, she was now livid!  As soon as we got to the top, through the huffing and puffing came squeals and tears of joy – she could see Big Ben!  It was a life-defining moment for her, as her ancestry was English and she had never traveled internationally before.  We thought that this sight may have made up for the trip to get there….nope!  We did not ride as a group on any kind of public transportation one more time during our entire stay – they paid for cabs for every bit of travel and my glorious plans of staying in places close to bus and train stops were now dust.

We rented a car and drove throughout England, Wales and Scotland and along the way the plan was to stop at castles, abbeys and other historical and amazing sights.  They loved the scenery of our drives and were so excited to explore the castles – well, there was one problem, castles don’t usually have elevators.  The uneven stones and steps were far too daunting for Grandma and so we ended up letting the two of them mill around the safer areas while my husband and I did a mad dash throughout whatever place we were at so that we could at least feel like we got our money’s worth and took in some of the incredible sights and history.  This is pretty much how the rest of the trip went, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – they seemed to completely enjoy themselves as long as we didn’t push them to do anything that required much walking or steps, and we got some alone time to explore on our own.

A few years later we decided to take on Costa Rica.  My husband and I had gone for the first time the year before, and we absolutely fell in love!  Grandma wanted us to take them on another trip, so we decided to return to a place that we had loved so that we could show them and also explore a little more of the magical place.  This time around, I thought I had a much better idea of how to plan for their ages and abilities.  I am a physical therapist after all, I should be able to figure out physical ability and plan accordingly.  I booked us a couple of nights at the hot springs, as I figured that with Grandma’s aching back and her companion’s general aches and pains that this would be wonderful and relaxing for them.  So our first two days we would be relaxing in amazing hot springs and taking in the rainforests of Costa Rica….they hated it.  Apparently they do not like getting into bathing suits and really did not like having to walk around the hot spring area with the wet paths and the few stairs that they needed to traverse to get down into the beautiful springs.  We went to the springs 1 time and spent most of the time at a table having drinks.  I will give them some kudos though, they both went down the water slide!  Once again, Costa Rica is not built for accessibility, in fact, most of the places that we have traveled outside of the United States really aren’t, but you still see very elderly people making their way around very well, even using bicycles!  Throughout these trips, I’ve definitely found a certain phrase returning to my head over and over again…if you don’t use it, you lose it!

Fast forward to 3 weeks ago, when we made the 80th birthday trip.  This time we decided to stay within the US so that we wouldn’t have to deal with long travel times and customs.  They wanted to go somewhere warm, so we chose St. Augustine, Florida and Savannah, Georgia.  They are both pretty interested in history, so we thought that going to the oldest city in the US would be pretty awesome.  This time I was really on top of it.  I made sure that we could get wheelchairs at the airports, I arranged for a larger rental car so they would be comfortable, and I made sure that all of our accommodations were accessible or that they had a room on the first floor.  At home, we rarely see them outside of their comfortable home habitats and I was completely taken aback by how much mobility, endurance and balance they had both lost.  Despite us both encouraging them to keep up a walking program or some form of exercise and balance activity, they both admitted that they had pretty much just putz around the house and done some walking in the grocery stores since our last trip.  It was difficult for them to walk 1 block, which made it so that we had to drive just about everywhere, even if it was a very short distance.  The car was also very difficult for them to get in and out of.  This meant that my husband and I were dropping them off and then looking for parking quite often.  Many of our activities became limited, as I was not aware how drastic of a decline had happened since our last trip.  We had planned to walk (slowly) around the very walkable cities of St. Augustine and Savannah, but this was not a possibility.  By the third day I was starting to have pain throughout my body and my brain felt like it was in a fog due to the lack of activity.  I am usually a very active person, so this actually took quite a toll on my body and mind.  We ended up figuring out that they were perfectly content to just sit and watch things or to take an afternoon nap, so my husband and I would take advantage of these times and go on walks so that we could explore some of the beaches and Savannah.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to explore much of St. Augustine on foot, as we hadn’t really figured this out that early in our trip.  As soon as I started walking more, I immediately felt so much better.  It’s amazing what a little blood flow can do for someone!

By the end of this last trip, they were both walking at a quicker pace, had better endurance, had conquered a few stairs and both reported that they felt so much better!  I’m sure that being at sea level and having a little more humidity made this easier on their bodies as well, but they felt great and said that their legs felt stronger than they had in a long time.  This was just from walking a couple of blocks a few times a day!  They both said that when we got home they were going to maintain a walking program and do some balance and leg strengthening exercises.

So, the moral to these stories is that the saying is true – if you don’t use it, you lose it.  I’ve seen it happen quite drastically over the last 7 years with Grandma and her companion.  And the thing that gets me the most is that if they had just kept up some sort of exercise program and worked on their balance a little bit every day, things could have been much different.  Now I understand that this is not the case for everyone, some people have major health issues and are not able to accomplish something like this everyday.  But, as a physical therapist, I have seen time and time again how when people get put into a rehab program, within a week or so they all report feeling better, more alert, less aches and pains, feel stronger and more secure with their balance and footing.  We are all getting older, there is no avoiding this, but if we can keep up a certain level of activity and work on our balance and flexibility a little bit everyday, we can improve our quality of life as we get into our golden years!  My grandparents were great examples of this – they homesteaded in Alaska and have worked very hard their entire lives.  Now the hard work did take a toll on them both physically, but they both managed to maintain a very consistent walking and exercise program well into their mid-80s.  They have both passed away at this point, but I do feel that their qualities of life were quite good up until a few months before their passing.  With many other people, we see this decline over a matter of years, not months, and I do feel that some of this is preventable if we put forth an effort to be active in some way everyday.  The other amazing thing about exercise and blood flow is that it’s great for the mind!

So my advice for people is to start young, start TODAY!  Make sure you walk at least 30 minutes a day.  Also, work on balance in some way every day.  It’s amazing how quickly we lose our sense of balance if we don’t work on it, and this is a huge safety concern.  Imagine how many falls, broken hips and other injuries that could be avoided as we age if we just kept up a little balance.  Throughout our travels I have really noticed big differences in the cultures – Europeans walk a lot, and I’ve seen what looks like 90-year-olds riding bicycles to go to market in Italy, I’ve seen elderly Swiss people walking over cobblestones streets like it’s nothing.  I’ve also seen elderly Chinese men practicing Tai Chi in the parks on uneven grassy surfaces and maintaining their balance better than a teenager!  These experiences have shown me that it can be done!  We can age gracefully and maintain our bodies and minds much better if we just put in a little effort everyday.  Take a walk, stand on one foot while you brush your teeth, ride a bicycle, learn some Tai Chi…there are a million things that we can just add in throughout our day that don’t cost much and will allow us to enjoy traveling, playing with our grandchildren, and other awesome activities as we grow older.