Keeping the golden years fresh

The art of preserving quality of life as we age

CATHY THORNHILL always considered herself an active person. She competed in marathons and triathlons in her late 30s and ate what she believed to be a relatively healthy diet. But as she grew older, Thornhill started experiencing the typical aches and pains associated with aging. A knee injury prevented her from running, she began suffering from low blood sugar, and she gained an extra 30 pounds. So like any normal retired educator, she hit the books. The former teacher, principal, and Polk County Schools District Deputy Superintendent began taking plant-based nutrition courses at Cornell University. During her studies, Thornhill realized her grandmother, and for that matter most of our grandmothers, had it right: “She always said eat your vegetables.” Thornhill began changing her diet, by adding an extra vegetable to her dinner plate. As her meals gradually became more and more plant based, she lost weight, and gained energy, even taking up running again. She felt so good, she was inspired to share her success and start a healthy study group called Chat and Chew.

“We try to host events and experiences that will help people. And we do it in social situations because we know as we move into retirement we often get more isolated,” she observes. Chat and Chew members meet to review health-focused books, attend cooking classes, and have interactive discussions with experts in health and nutrition via Skype. What started as just ten people meeting up at the Winter Haven Library has now sprouted into chapters across the state and country.

Making sure we keep the golden years fresh and ripe is about more than just preventing illness or slowing the loss of independent living. It’s about feeling good too. The Holmes-Rah Stress Inventory ranks retirement as the 10th most stressful life event a person can experience. Many people spend those years going to the doctor’s office battling illness and disease. So what’s the key to keeping a good quality of life long into retirement? Many people would be surprised to learn how large an age range the term “senior” actually describes. A person 50 years of age and older can apply for membership into AARP. But how do family members and caregivers recognize what stage an aging person is at and if they need more care then they are receiving. The medical community has broken the aging process into three classifications: young elderly, the elderly, and the aging elderly. While issues such as bone density loss can start as early as the age of 40, degenerative joint disease and pain begins affecting those anywhere from 50 to 65 years old — necessitating more doctor visits, and increased physical activity. As individuals become elderly, they face a loss of libido and/or sexual function. However, just the process of retirement alone can have a negative impact on physical health. “How are we going to fill those eight or 10 hours, five days a week with something as fulfilling?” asks Trishanna Sookdeo MD, MPH, a family medicine physician with Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center. Dr. Sookdeo says another major issue is dealing with new limitations to our physical abilities and how it affects our relationships with the ones we love. “Now you’re coming to terms with, sort of getting to love that old person you’re becoming, in a very new way,” she adds. Some signs to watch out for include:

• Changes in daily habits, including bathing, dressing and grooming, eating, and walking.

• Changes in physical appearance: Weight gain or loss, sloppy appearance, bruising, or burns.

• Changes at home: Unmaintained yard or home interior, unopened mail, or low food supply.

• Changes in behavior: Lack of drive or motivation, physically or verbally abusive, memory lapses, repetitive speech, and change in personality.

According to recent U.S. Census statistics, more than 19 percent of Polk County residents are 65 years and older. That number is expected to grow, but the county as well as private groups and organizations throughout the community provide a multitude of resources and support for this expanding demographic. Better Living for Seniors is a non-profit professional coalition of over 200 public, private, and volunteer agencies and individuals providing services to seniors in Polk.

Physically and socially active seniors looking to exercise their competitive spirit, can enter the annual Polk Senior Games. “We have about 2,500 seniors that enter every year. And I know we’re an inspiration for people to stay active all year,” says Deena Wilbur, Polk Senior Games Executive Director. The event, which is held each year in late February, allows seniors to compete in over 38 sports and games. Contestants get the benefits of training, making new friends at the games, competing, and inspiring each other to try new things. “The social aspect of our games is huge,” says Wilbur. Polk has one of the largest senior games in the country and the largest in Florida. Local municipalities as well as the county, have been very supportive of the event, and Publix has been a sponsor of the event for 25 years. Wilbur encourages residents to get involved. “There’s something for everyone,” she continues. “From serious competitors to those that just want to have fun.” Competitors can sign up at the website

As the area’s senior population continues to grow, it’s important to have the resources and support in place to help individuals maintain a good quality of life. Today, along with her plant-based diet, Thornhill regularly walks, does Pilates, bikes, hikes, and occasionally runs. But she adds that physical fitness and a healthy diet aren’t the only keys to a happy retirement. “One thing that helps all of us is a sense of purpose,” she points out. There are plenty of local organizations providing seniors with an opportunity to find that sense of purpose or assistance at Better Living for Seniors And for those looking to improve their diet, groups like Chat and Chew offer a way to learn through a social setting.


portrait by MIKE POTTHAST

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