The U.S. has devoted a month to honor and celebrate elders each year since 1963, when President Kennedy proclaimed May to be Senior Citizens Month. Now, nearly 50 years later, the month-long awareness event lives on as Older Americans Month. This year’s theme, selected by the Administration on Aging, is Never Too Old to Play. The campaign encourages older Americans “to stay engaged, active and involved in their own lives and in their communities” by fostering playfulness.
Play is not just something for kids to do when they’re not sleeping—it’s a core human trait that has been admired and valued throughout human history, from ancient Greek philosophers, to great religious teachers, to modern day medical doctors. Plato wrote that “Life must be lived as play”, and also noted, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
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More than two thousand years after Plato, one of today’s most vocal advocates of playfulness is Dr. Stuart Brown, who actually founded a National Institute of Play. On the institute’s website he writes:
“Play is the gateway to vitality. By its nature, it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.”
Dr. Stuart’s enthusiastic praise of play is reminiscent of a 19th century snake-oil salesman touting the benefits of his latest dubious elixir, but the key differences are that Dr. Stuart’s statements are grounded in science, and he isn’t selling anything at all. Instead he’s promoting an attitude and outlook that is its own reward.
Exercise is immensely beneficial to people of any age, but an argument could be made that it’s most important to older people. The Never Too Old to Play campaign notes that, “Gentle exercises can improve balance and strengthen muscles without putting too much strain on the body, thus reducing the risk of falls and broken bones. An added bonus: Those who stay fit tend to have more energy.”
Exercise is more fun when it is is approached as play instead of a painful duty, and when exercise is made fun, it’s easier to get into a routine too. The Administration on Aging suggests that elders consider activities such as miniature golf, Thai chi, water aerobics, yoga, dancing and even Wii bowling.
The old saying, “use it or lose it,” may hold water when it comes to mental exercise for seniors. While still a contentious topic in the medical community, there is some evidence suggesting that mental activities (“brain games”) may reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. This claim aside, common sense says that enjoyable forms of intellectual stimulation and mental exercise should help keep elders sharp.
Some activities recommended by the campaign are trivia competitions, crossword puzzles, and also traditional games such as scrabble, bridge and chess. The Administration on Aging also suggests that seniors consider enrolling in continuing education classes or attending speaker series lectures on topics that interest them.
Play and creativity are inexorably linked. Activities and modes of thinking associated with children’s play, such as exploration, building, and pretending, are also core components of creativity. “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct,” wrote the renowned psychologist, Carl Jung.
Never Too Old to Play puts forward a number of suggestions about how seniors can engage in the arts: Singing, dancing, poetry, painting, and crafting are all popular choices. But creativity takes many forms. Just as there’s no wrong way to play, there’s no wrong way to be creative. Feel free to get creative when deciding how to be creative.
Never Too Old to Play isn’t just a message to elders. Younger family members and friends are called to participate in fun activities with older people to the mutual benefit of young and old alike:
“Preschoolers, college students, and young adults benefit from interactions with older adults. Unfortunately, many aspects of modern-day life keep these diverse age groups from being a part of each other’s lives… Older adults are more likely to be active when they’re with younger people, and the engagement also increases their sense of self-worth. In turn, young people can gain valuable knowledge and skills during time spent with older adults; they may also develop a deeper appreciation of different generations and an increased capacity for compassion.”
The campaign details a number of potential activities for an intergenerational “day of play.” Ideas include putting together a time capsule, having a talent show, putting on a community potluck, or just a family outing to a ball-game or the zoo.
A Place for Mom is proud to spread the word about Older Americans Month 2012. To learn more about some of the activities mentioned here, checkout the the Never Too Old to Play activity guide.