Women and Aging: Taking Care of Ourselves

by Vivian Silva, MSW/Gerontologist


What have you learned from the older women in your life? What is the best advice given to you about aging from the older women you know? Students in my class “Women in the Second Half of Life” at San Jose State University often ask me what they should know about becoming an older woman. Many admit fear regarding aging.

Perhaps they didn’t have a positive role model to learn from but I am able to give them information from the many women I’ve worked with for almost twenty years. Participants in my discussion groups such as Lady Guinevere’s Round Table and A Women’s Circle in Northern California senior centers engage in a variety of topics but for the purpose of this article, will share key points regarding ‘taking care of ourselves’ as we age.

Be Our Own Best Friend

We know the right things to say when it comes to comforting or advocating for our friends but often are much less forgiving or kind when it comes to our own matters. “Get another opinion” a woman told her friend about a health matter but found it difficult to follow her own advice when she had a health problem. Has your best friend said to you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself”? Women in the groups agree that if they could go back to their younger years, they would treat themselves as they did their best friends.

New Friendships

Social support is vital to aging. Stanford University studies of caregivers find that social support helps depressed caregivers feel better. Another study involves breast cancer patients recovering quicker when participating in a support group. One of the reasons I started discussion groups was to encourage new friendships to blossom. A seventy year old woman stated, “I used to feel alone all the time… but since I’ve come to this group, I don’t feel that way anymore.” If you can’t find a group to join, start your own. And, keep in mind that friendships come in all ages.

Ask for Help

A comment I’ve heard often is “I’ve always been the one to help others, now it’s so difficult being the one needing help” (60 year old woman in my dream group). This common theme reflects that about 78% of the caregivers in the United States are women. If always taking care of family, friends and neighbors, how do we give self permission to ask for help? I remind clients, “If you don’t take good care of yourself, then you will not be able to take care of others.” Women do go to physicians more often than men but at the same time, they don’t want to be a burden to others. Be specific when asking for help and remember to give others permission to take care of themselves by saying “no” to you. Another important point is that we can’t expect people to be mind readers and to automatically know when we need help.

Our Bodies

Health reports are confusing and for example, what should we do about menopausal symptoms ? After all the publicity about the pros and cons of taking Hormone Replacement Therapy, female physicians offer differing opinions. The important message—we must get to know our bodies and become the experts for our health.

Older women tell me they didn’t even know what was going on with their bodies. Younger women have more information then ever before to research options. Begin listening to that “gut feeling”, know your body, research family history, and don’t be afraid to speak out when those nagging doubts won’t go away. Second opinions may be necessary but most important--we have the right to question authority. We have the right to speak up. A fifty-four year old woman told me that she knew something was wrong with her leg but she had to trust herself and push for tests when she was repeatedly told by the health professionals that ‘nothing was wrong’. She knew different and she was right.

Disabililties

Aging increases the proportion of those with either a short or long-term condition limiting independence. Almost sixty percent of women 65 and over are living with a mental or physical disability. Aging can’t be stopped but we can educate ourselves about preventing poor health. Women live on the average seven years longer than men and experience more disabling diseases such as osteoporosis, depression, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, urinary incontinence and Alzheimer’s. Women, living with a disability, experience the necessity for better communicating their health needs in order to improve quality of life and quality of care. In my groups, women relate their struggles with financial restraints, transportation, support services, and ask for more health related information. Further education regarding available options and advocating for creative solutions are additional ways to take care of ourselves.

Reading isn’t the only way to become informed about health issues. Talking to older women can help us learn about our own aging--what we can expect, the challenges and satisfactions. Invite them to speak to your groups about their health and what tips they’d offer and what they have learned about life. If you would like to share these wisdoms, you can e-mail me: vivsilva@aol.com.

Resource: www.4women.gov

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vivian Silva teaches "Women in the Second Half of Life" for the Gerontology Program (Health Science Department) at San Jose State University in San Jose, California. This course examines older women's physical, psychological, social, middle and late life issues. Changes will be considered in the context of historical, cultural and socioeconomic class differences. Course format includes lecture, guest speakers, discussion, video presentations and group exercises.

A national speaker on aging issues, she brings experience as a care manager, group facilitator, designer of programs for older adults in the areas of body movement, exercise, humor, spirituality, sexuality, divorce, caregiving, and other women's issues. Vivian is committed to providing fun and creative ways to look at aging and advocates for the dignity of older adults. Current projects include a documentary, writing a book and exercise for those with arthritis. She can be contacted at 408-279-5833 or e mail: vivsilva@aol.com.

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