To Slow the Aging Process, Preserve Your Sense of Purpose

Experts recommend staying engaged and active in whatever interests you.​


Published:

Sue Claire Harper is plenty busy as chair of the League of Women Voters in Sussex County's Land Use Committee, but she finds the time to “treat herself” to classes at UD.//Leslie Barbaro

 

Though Phoebe Cottingham will be 81 in June, the highly trained economist with a pair of advanced degrees who worked for the federal government for six years still feels like she’s in college.

As she goes through her days at Independence, a 55-and-over community in Millsboro, she has the kind of interactions that remind her of her undergraduate days at Penn State, when people came together for a variety of activities. Her friends and neighbors at her community provide a social web that allows her to remain vibrant, even as the years pile up. By staying connected, Cottingham fills her days with friendship and a strong sense of purpose.

“Our community is like going to college,” she says. “Getting to know people is fun, but you have to be ready to do that.”

Creating connections

For years, people have spoken about aging gracefully, but that term has been a generally nebulous designation without much concrete definition. These days, it’s easier to understand how people like Cottingham successfully ward off time’s advances. While there is no broad-based formula that applies to everyone, simply because there are too many variables due to health and other factors, there are several characteristics shared by those who remain vibrant and energized during their senior years. The ability to connect with others and have the ability to engage in interests is especially important.

“I’ve always been a very active person,” says Cottingham, who is the president of the East Sussex Republican Club. “I worked full time until I was 72.”

Diet, exercise and managing health issues are vital parts of navigating the aging process successfully. But current studies indicate that having a sense of purpose and being engaged socially can be just as important. Older people need a positive mental outlook just as much as they require physical health and stamina. It’s a blend of specifics—eating right, remaining on the move—and intangibles—having friends and reasons to feel necessary—that can produce a rewarding twilight.

According to a 2017 study of 6,000 people over the age of 50 published in JAMA Psychiatry, those who had a sense of purpose in their daily lives had less possibility of losing strength in their grips and developing slower walks—two significant indications of aging. Further, those with increased purpose took better care of themselves, paid greater attention to their diets and exercise needs and had more positive outlooks on life—huge benefits when time conspires to make the body ache and falter.

“The research we are doing supports the idea that a person should have a sense of purpose,” says Dr. James Ellison, the Swank Foundation endowed chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics at Christiana Care. “That has been my clinical experience as well. A person’s sense of purpose can decline with age. Having a sense of purpose has been associated in research with a number of improved results, such as self-reported health, immune system response, optimism and decreased depression and loneliness,” says Ellison.

Sue Claire Harper stays engaged by taking classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UD.//Leslie Barbaro

Staying social

Just as Cottingham is involved with the East Sussex Republicans, 70-year-old Sue Claire Harper has had an ongoing stint as chair of the League of Women Voters in Sussex County's Land Use Committee. A registered nurse who worked for decades with patients who suffered spinal cord and brain injuries, Harper moved to Delaware in January 2011. While looking for information about an upcoming election, she connected with the League and became fascinated with the issues of the day.

“You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,” Harper says.

Harper’s commitment to the League can be up to 40 hours a week, and she is active in a variety of projects that the league promotes. She is involved in the county’s comprehensive plan, which it undertakes every 10 years and is an organizer of forums that bring together citizens and experts to discuss a variety of issues. She also takes classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware and was most recently delighted to learn about issues facing India from a former Indian ambassador.

“They are a source of sheer joy for me,” she says of the classes. “That’s my treat to myself.”

Harper’s high level of engagement provides her with plenty of reason to greet each day with enthusiasm and provides a strong social connection that experts believe is vital for those trying to temper the negative effects of aging.

“A strong social life is a good distraction,” says Dr. Preeti Gupta, a physician at Bayhealth Primary Care in Milford. “Having a circle of family and friends allows people to live better. They don’t stay in one place and think about their anxiety and worry about whether their grandchildren are having problems.”

Being engaged and adding purpose to their lives can help seniors greatly. But there are other behaviors that can contribute greatly to successful aging. One is the ability to get good sleep. That may seem impossible for many older folks, since a variety of circumstances and conditions inhibit the ability to get sustained rest. The good news, is that according to Gupta, people in their 70s and 80s require less sleep than do those who are younger.

Getting on track

So, how to get it? The term “sleep hygiene” has become popular in recent years, and it is quite important for older Americans. It is important to have a routine at bedtime that signals to the body that sleep is imminent. As it is for teenagers, a heavy dose of screen time before bed can be counterproductive, as can caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Having a consistent bedtime is important, as is a regular time to rise. And when sleep does not come easily, don’t linger in bed getting more anxious.

“If you can’t fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing,” suggests Dr. Gina Facciolo, from the Beebe Family Practice in Rehoboth Beach. “And don’t use your bedroom for anything other than sleep and sex.”

As the body ages, exercise becomes ever more important. It doesn’t just build stamina and keep muscles toned; it also helps build balance and stability, which can ward off dangerous falls. Being physically active also helps promote emotional health. Being on the move creates a sense of accomplishment, while also oxygenating the blood and helping release endorphins, which trigger positive feelings throughout the body. The exercise doesn’t have to be hard-core aerobic or heavy weight training. Ellison reports that stretching is also important for older people to help  increase flexibility and balance. He cautions that all people should speak with a physician to find out what level of exercise they can tolerate. He also reminds people that there are many ways to increase activity, such as parking further from a store and walking or carrying some packages or bags from the car.

“Exercise at every age is important for good health,” Ellison says. “It improves the metabolism, lowers blood pressure and stimulates the growth of new brain cells.”

Don’t forget about diet. Ellison recommends the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat oils. One doesn’t have to follow a rigid pattern, but it is important to fill the body with as many good things as possible. Doing so helps ward off illness and fuel the furnace with materials that help foster a healthy, active lifestyle.

“I was never a believer in fads,” Cottingham says. “I know what agrees with me. I have learned by experience. You know to do it in moderation,” she says.

And keep doing it—for as many years as possible.

Editors' note: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Sue Claire Harper is the president of the League of Women Voters of Sussex County (LWVSC). Harper is the chair of the LWVSC's Land Use Committee. Martha Redmond is LWVSC's current president. We regret the error. 

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Mitch Lyons is a well-known and important part of the local art community, who over the past five decades developed a truly innovative form of print-making. Lyons received his undergraduate degree...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Website »

More information

The Lighthouse Inc. Church presenta el servicio de la iglesia en espanol.  El servicio de la iglesia en espanol comenzia 14 de merzo de 2019.  Hables espanol?  Entonces este es el...

Cost: free

Where:
The Lighthouse Inc., Church
6 S Railroad Ave
Wyoming, DE  19934-1026
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Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
Telephone: 302-697-1472
Contact Name: Christopher Gore

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By Michael Gotch Directed by Mark Lamos Thompson Theatre JAN. 16 – FEB. 2 ​After last season’s wildly successful Minor Fantastical Kingdoms, Michael Gotch returns with a darker...

Cost: $20 - $37, with discounts for Seniors, Students, and UD Faculty/Staff

Where:
Thompson Theatre
Center for the Arts
110 Orchard
Newark, DE  19716
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Sponsor: Resident Ensemble Players
Telephone: 302-831-2204
Contact Name: REP Box Office
Website »

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A rotating group show featuring an eclectic mix of artwork including paintings, drawings, ceramics, art glass and jewelry. Custom Framing and Gift Certificates are always available. Gallery...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

65 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth. Travel back in time to see their world as they knew it, and be the dinosaur. Drawing on today’s modern technology and tested and...

Cost: $9 ages 3-59, $8 seniors, $3 ages 1-2, free for under 12 months and DMNH members

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-384-3694
Website »

More information

RECONSTITUTE Draper Experiment by Jacintha Clark December 6, 2019 – February 23, 2020  Opening Reception: Friday, December 6 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop Jacintha...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

Mitch Lyons is a well-known and important part of the local art community, who over the past five decades developed a truly innovative form of print-making. Lyons received his undergraduate degree...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

GESTURE OF MOTION Haeley Kyong January 10 - April 23, 2020 Opening Reception: Friday, February 7 5 - 9 PM during first Friday Art Loop The idea of relativity is pronounced in color...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD - SORT OF Hugh Atkins and Jenna Lucente January 3 - January 27, 2020 Opening Reception: Friday, January 10, 2020 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop “Let there be...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

MALICE’S RESTAURANT Hennessy Experiment by Natalie Hutchings January 10 - April 15, 2020 OPENING RECEPTION: Friday, February 7, 2020 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop The Hennessy...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

Directly inspired by the Delaware Art Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite and American illustration collections, this commission from Angela Fraleigh presents a contemporary look at gender and identity...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

BEIJING BOOSTER PAINTINGS Peter Wayne Lewis October 4, 2019 to February 26, 2020 VIP Preview Reception:  October 3, 2019 | 5 - 7 PM Public Reception:  October 4,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

LOOK TO THE LAND A Mary Putman Retrospective November 16, 2019 - April 6, 2020 Opening Reception: Friday, December 6 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop Long-time Delawarean artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

Curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D., “Posing Beauty in African American Culture explores the contested ways in which African and African American beauty have been represented in historical and...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

On a bitter cold night in London's East End, a baffling murder occurs. Has Jack the Ripper returned or has another chap taken his place? London needs your help! Polish up your looking glass...

Cost: Admission is free. All wine and food purchases are pay-as-you-go.

Where:
Chaddsford Winery
632 Baltimore Pike
Chadds Ford, PA  19317
View map »

More information

The Lighthouse Inc. Church presenta el servicio de la iglesia en espanol.  El servicio de la iglesia en espanol comenzia 14 de merzo de 2019.  Hables espanol?  Entonces este es el...

Cost: free

Where:
The Lighthouse Inc., Church
6 S Railroad Ave
Wyoming, DE  19934-1026
View map »


Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
Telephone: 302-697-1472
Contact Name: Christopher Gore

More information

By Michael Gotch Directed by Mark Lamos Thompson Theatre JAN. 16 – FEB. 2 ​After last season’s wildly successful Minor Fantastical Kingdoms, Michael Gotch returns with a darker...

Cost: $20 - $37, with discounts for Seniors, Students, and UD Faculty/Staff

Where:
Thompson Theatre
Center for the Arts
110 Orchard
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: Resident Ensemble Players
Telephone: 302-831-2204
Contact Name: REP Box Office
Website »

More information

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The Delaware Beekeepers Association will be holding two beekeeping workshops at Wesley College in Dover on January 18th 2020.  Beekeeping 101 is an all day workshop for those interested in...

Cost: 50.00

Where:
Wesley College
120 N. State Street
Dover, DE  19901
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Sponsor: Delaware Beekeepers Association and Wesley College
Telephone: 302-242-7859
Contact Name: Kathleen Curran
Website »

More information

A rotating group show featuring an eclectic mix of artwork including paintings, drawings, ceramics, art glass and jewelry. Custom Framing and Gift Certificates are always available. Gallery...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Instructor: Roe Murray   

Cost: $55 Members, $70 Non-Members

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Ketnmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

65 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth. Travel back in time to see their world as they knew it, and be the dinosaur. Drawing on today’s modern technology and tested and...

Cost: $9 ages 3-59, $8 seniors, $3 ages 1-2, free for under 12 months and DMNH members

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-384-3694
Website »

More information

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD - SORT OF Hugh Atkins and Jenna Lucente January 3 - January 27, 2020 Opening Reception: Friday, January 10, 2020 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop “Let there be...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

GESTURE OF MOTION Haeley Kyong January 10 - April 23, 2020 Opening Reception: Friday, February 7 5 - 9 PM during first Friday Art Loop The idea of relativity is pronounced in color...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

BEIJING BOOSTER PAINTINGS Peter Wayne Lewis October 4, 2019 to February 26, 2020 VIP Preview Reception:  October 3, 2019 | 5 - 7 PM Public Reception:  October 4,...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

MALICE’S RESTAURANT Hennessy Experiment by Natalie Hutchings January 10 - April 15, 2020 OPENING RECEPTION: Friday, February 7, 2020 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop The Hennessy...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

Directly inspired by the Delaware Art Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite and American illustration collections, this commission from Angela Fraleigh presents a contemporary look at gender and identity...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D., “Posing Beauty in African American Culture explores the contested ways in which African and African American beauty have been represented in historical and...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Mitch Lyons is a well-known and important part of the local art community, who over the past five decades developed a truly innovative form of print-making. Lyons received his undergraduate degree...

Cost: Free with Museum admission.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

LOOK TO THE LAND A Mary Putman Retrospective November 16, 2019 - April 6, 2020 Opening Reception: Friday, December 6 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop Long-time Delawarean artist...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: The Delaware Contemporary
Telephone: 302-656-6466
Contact Name: Tatiana Michels
Website »

More information

RECONSTITUTE Draper Experiment by Jacintha Clark December 6, 2019 – February 23, 2020  Opening Reception: Friday, December 6 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop Jacintha...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

Thanks to books like Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, there’s an increasing interest among homeowners, property managers, and municipal governments to include more native plants in...

Cost: $20

Where:
Mt. Cuba Center
3120 Barley Mill Rd
Hockessin, DE  19707
View map »


Website »

More information

Shake off the winter blues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art's Arctic BBQ! Roast marshmallows by the fire and have a “snowball fight” in the Museum Courtyard. Explore the River...

Cost: Free with museum admission

Where:
Brandywine River Museum of Art
1 Hoffman's Mill Road
Chadds Ford, PA  19317
View map »


Sponsor: Brandywine River Museum of Art
Telephone: 610-388-2700
Website »

More information

.Enjoy a Guide-led tour of the special exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Culture.  Image: Susan Taylor, as Model,c. 1970s. Ken Ramsay (1935–2008). Gelatin...

Cost: Free for Members, Free with admission for Non-Members.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

On a bitter cold night in London's East End, a baffling murder occurs. Has Jack the Ripper returned or has another chap taken his place? London needs your help! Polish up your looking glass...

Cost: Admission is free. All wine and food purchases are pay-as-you-go.

Where:
Chaddsford Winery
632 Baltimore Pike
Chadds Ford, PA  19317
View map »

More information

The Lighthouse Inc. Church presenta el servicio de la iglesia en espanol.  El servicio de la iglesia en espanol comenzia 14 de merzo de 2019.  Hables espanol?  Entonces este es el...

Cost: free

Where:
The Lighthouse Inc., Church
6 S Railroad Ave
Wyoming, DE  19934-1026
View map »


Sponsor: The Lighthouse Inc.Church
Telephone: 302-697-1472
Contact Name: Christopher Gore

More information

By Michael Gotch Directed by Mark Lamos Thompson Theatre JAN. 16 – FEB. 2 ​After last season’s wildly successful Minor Fantastical Kingdoms, Michael Gotch returns with a darker...

Cost: $20 - $37, with discounts for Seniors, Students, and UD Faculty/Staff

Where:
Thompson Theatre
Center for the Arts
110 Orchard
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: Resident Ensemble Players
Telephone: 302-831-2204
Contact Name: REP Box Office
Website »

More information

Show More...
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