Our metabolism slows down as we grow older, but do we have to take it lying down? Why not include steps to combat the health problems caused by aging in our retirement plan, asks Geeta Padmanabhan

Last year, Dignity Foundation held a day-long “Companionship Carnival” for senior citizens. And Nathubhai Patel’s Senior Citizens’ Live-In Relationships Sammelan has become a roadshow with stops across Indian cities, including Chennai. In news that received mixed reactions, some of the participants said they were looking for live-in partners who were “reasonably good-looking” and “cultured”. No marriage, please, they reportedly said, we know divorces are messy and family opposition, property issues and incompatibility are never far away. Widows didn’t think it was wise to forgo family pension. Companionship, not commitment was the goal. Let’s walk into the sunset with no strings attached! It’s loneliness that pushes seniors seek this “informal arrangement for companionship”, said Sheilu Sreenivasan, founder-president, Dignity Foundation. The effects of isolation came starkly to us in the suicide note of an Ambattur couple whose son was not in touch with them.

HelpAge India organises interactions among groups of left-alone seniors. Activities include outings, music, movies, dances and hand-craft. Swanky senior centres offer five-star living to elders moving into the community. While all this is fine, what should stop us from revving up our life as we cross age miles? Our metabolism does slow down as we step into our seventies, but do we have to take it lying down? Why not factor in “fight against slow-down” as part of our retirement plan?

Remember Dylan Thomas’ call? “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Positive approach

Ninety-year-old Hemavathi can give you lessons on this “rage-against-close-of-day” life. Walking tall with a whiplash of words as protection, she refuses to stay down, saying good health, positive attitude and zestful participation trump promotion of special “senior care.” “I know my metabolism better than any outside medical degree holder,” she is categorical. When she came down with a mild stroke, she said, “If I walk, the brain will get the right signals.”

She never misses a meal. It is mildly-spiced, measured, well-cooked, vegetable-laden, and is taken six times daily at regular intervals. (While experts recommend smaller, more frequent meals for faster metabolism, eating three larger meals a day could also work equally well. We can’t miss breakfast, but we can choose between the two as long as our diet remains healthy.) “I’m neither full nor hungry through the day,” says Haimavathi. She makes yogurt a daily affair. “If you’re buying full-fat milk, turn curd into liquid form, and add ginger and turmeric to your cooking.” Docs tell us the good bacteria in yogurt help digestion and are associated with maintaining a healthy weight. Phytonutrients in capsicum, ginger, and turmeric have a beneficial effect on metabolism.

Exercise is essential

Cardio work-outs and aerobic exercises keep metabolic rate high. Not your mojo? Then get up to walk as you take phone calls. Mayo Clinic’s research in what’s called NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), has found we can burn up to an additional 800 calories/day simply by moving around more. Sitting less has a direct bearing on longevity, the study says. You could take the stairs instead of the elevator, and walk down to meet rather than e-mail friends. “My day starts with yoga,” the elder says sitting cross-legged. “I walk to the temple twice a day.” At her retirement centre, elders have to walk to a central dining hall.

Old age also means slowing of brain function, she reminds you. She keeps a journal and has published books on kitchen remedies. We outlive our brains if we don’t exercise our cognitive abilities, say neurologists. Mental functions such as memory, thinking-speed, problem-solving ability, reasoning and decision-making decline as we cross the fifties. For a “brain work-out”, we need to think calmly, following the mind’s rhythms. Haimavathi’s formula for boosting brain-power includes active interest in the affairs of friends and family, relating themes of books and films to her personal situations, looking at both the details and the big picture, and starting conversations with provocative statements. This “synthesised thinking” strengthens connections between different areas of the brain. Shaping your brain by engaging in the right kind of mental exercise can reverse brain ageing, andeven make you smarter, she seems to say.

The ninety-year-old exhibits a lively interest in learning something new. She can handle a cellphone — “I played the veena once!” — is keen to know the latest in health drinks, and reads wellness news. Most important, she says, is to be medicine-free. Try home remedies before antibiotics or cholesterol medication. A life of disciplined eating, attending at once to stomach ailments, good grooming, hygienic habits, dipping into rivers, oil massages, sensible socialising and a mature sense of humour should help you hit a spirited century, she says. A sharp tongue isn’t on the list, but we can let that pass.