Health and wellbeing

Health was identified as the most important part of ageing well. Health was achieved and maintained primarily through exercise and eating the right food. Participants outlined a number of other preventative health measures in their older years, which included the importance of mental stimulation and having a balanced life.

“Being healthy I think is the number one issue for ageing, it’s very important” – (Helen W)

Health was identified as the most important part of ageing well. Health was achieved and maintained primarily through exercise and eating the right food. Participants outlined a number of other preventative health measures in their older years, which included the importance of mental stimulation and having a balanced life (see Interests and activities).

When participants spoke about being healthy in their older years they generally mentioned the need to eat well. Many people spoke about the importance of eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Some people felt meat was healthy while others had adopted a vegetarian diet as they grew older. Eating healthily meant avoiding foods high in fat and not eating too much white bread or cake. It was important to avoid takeaway or junk food, and also to eat as little processed food as possible. Participants said that being able to cook for themselves was a crucial part of staying healthy. Single men or those who were looking after their ill partner also emphasised the importance of cooking healthy meals. Brian E found this easy because his mother taught him how to cook, while Brian X admitted that he eats more processed food than he should since his wife died.

Lyn prepares lots of healthy, unprocessed meals and Robin believes this will result in a better quality of life as he ages.

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Charles prepares all the family meals and has to encourage Lois to eat well.

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Vitamins and other supplements were frequently taken in addition to a balanced diet, but also to target specific health conditions. Common supplements that participants mentioned taking were fish oil, vitamin D, vitamin B, magnesium, calcium, multivitamins, as well as garlic and turmeric.

Katherine takes a number of supplements in addition to prescribed medication, and found magnesium particularly beneficial.

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Some people spoke about the need to control their weight and how this became harder as they aged. There were various ways in which people lost weight which included weight loss programs, lap band surgery, fasting and not buying unhealthy food. Simply eating less as people aged, however, was more common than dieting. In contrast, a few participants pointed out their loss of appetite which meant they needed to make sure they were eating enough.

Edith has lost weight and finds it easier if she avoids buying anything like cakes and scones at the supermarket.

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Dot was skipping meals because she had little desire to eat. She now has a wristband that allows her son to monitor her activities.

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All three Aboriginal participants pointed out the importance of food, particularly bush food, for maintaining health and wellbeing. Collecting bush food also contributed to exercise through walking and digging. Participants from Eastern Europe spoke about increased food availability in Australia and how they are tempted by the abundance of sweet food, meat and bread.

Elaine M describes the bush foods that keep people strong. She talks about the difficulty balancing Western and Yolngu ways of living.

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Guymun finds that walking and digging for yams helps keep her strong and healthy.

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Oscar believes it is important to have three meals a day. He compares the way in which old people were cared for when he was young, to the takeaway food people eat now.

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Tamara is grateful for the wide variety of foods available in Australia, and that she can afford them on the pension.

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In addition to a healthy diet, participants pointed out the importance of exercise for maintaining health and wellbeing as they aged. Doing some form of exercise was seen as part of looking after themselves and forestalling ailments associated with ageing. People who did exercise described how good it made them feel, both physically and mentally.

Rebecca goes to the gym five days a week. She not only enjoys the exercise, but finds it a good way to relax, meet people, gather her thoughts and have some ‘me’ time.

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Earl’s GP referred him to an exercise program. He can now walk further, breathe better, has more energy and no longer feels depressed.

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If Oscar does not exercise he notices that he is not as strong. He believes that sitting around makes you get older.

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Chris points out that it is important to keep your body active as well as your mind.

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The most common type of exercise that people did was walking. Some people walked every morning with their partner, others walked their dog regularly. Swimming and cycling were other important forms of exercise, and several people said they did not get home help because cleaning their house kept them active.

Dorothy thinks walking must fulfil a human need. She describes how hard physical activity has become as she has aged.

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Colleen stays healthy by keeping active, including doing her own housework, and having regular health checks.

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While some people felt they should be doing more exercise than they currently do, there were many reasons given for why exercise was difficult in old age. Some people still worked full time or felt they did not have the time to exercise, other people experienced aches and pains or were afraid of falls, especially when walking on uneven ground such as at the beach. Exercise was particularly difficult for participants who had broken an arm or a leg, had a stroke or had problems with their vascular system.

Leonie avoids group exercise classes because they are too fast and she is afraid she could fall.

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It was widely recognised amongst participants that diet and exercise were important for healthy ageing. There were, however, many other preventative measures which people said contributed to good health such as regular health checks, not smoking, drinking very little alcohol, getting enough rest and relaxation, seeing a naturopath, a chiropractor and having regular therapeutic massage.

Nora lee believes there is a lot you can do to keep yourself healthy.

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Having a fortnightly massage helps Margaret to relax and keeps her pain-free.

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Healthy ageing was also about having a balanced life. Having a social life, personal interests and mental stimulation were seen as crucial to overall wellbeing (see interview above with Colleen; see Interests and activities; see Friends and community; see Technology). Several people mentioned that having a sense of humour was important. Having strong spiritual beliefs also contributed to people’s health. For example, it facilitated Olga’s recovery from personal trauma and Tamara pointed out that “a healthy spirit means a healthy body”.

Having a sense of humour has helped Sabihe through hard times.

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Guymun’s belief in God helps her feel strong.

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Oscar believes that living well is about looking after yourself and your community, your mind and your soul.

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