Career & Success

Esther Koch: Exercise and Friends Are the Key to Successful Aging

An elder care expert says your social network is "the elixir of life."

May 24, 2013

| by Kathleen O'Toole

At her 30th MBA class reunion in 2009, gerontologist and consultant Esther Koch gave her classmates tips on successful aging. Since then, she was almost entirely housebound for nine months because of injuries from a bicycle accident. That prompted the 61 year old to change her own plans for the next stage of her life. Successful aging, she says, involves a willingness to recognize how important other people are to you, and to allow yourself to rebalance your lifestyle as your goals change.

Four years have passed since you talked with your Stanford GSB classmates about successful aging. Have your experiences since brought any new insights?

The tenets haven’t changed. Successful aging is not just adding years to life but putting life into those years. Social support structures, or social networks, are so important. That hit home for me when I was the primary caregiver to my mother. She had a motto: “To have a friend you must be a friend.”

Recently, I had to have a back operation and an ankle operation, which made me really understand not having physical abilities, and what that means for somebody living alone. It’s not a good combination. I was a fall risk, and I was lonely. Out of that, I made the decision to sell my house and move in with my partner, Jim. As a gerontologist, I know that living alone is not good for you physically, mentally, or emotionally, but this really hit home for me.

Are you planning to retire because of your injury?

I’m going to continue to work, but I’m going to be living in a less urban area, and smell the roses a little more. It’s Mendocino, an area where community is important, where people live community. I’ll continue to use my gerontology degree, which I currently use as a Medicare advisor. I’m looking for those 64-year-old Baby Boomers to help them with their initial Medicare elections and annual Medicare prescription drug elections.

What’s your advice to the middle-aged and elder Americans who live alone?

Many of us in the Baby Boomer generation were brought up to be independent, and that does not bode well for successful aging. We know that not having social support has correlations with dementia and death.

Sometimes people are too late in considering how they want to live their life when they’re older. If you haven’t thought about what your needs might be as you’re older, you’re probably going to stay in the situation you are in. You lose options if you don’t plan ahead. Acknowledging aging isn’t giving into it. Not acknowledging aging is giving in because you lose options.

But isn’t it true that as we get older, we live more in the moment and do less planning ahead?

I look at that a little differently. As you get older, you have the perspective that you’re on the short end of life, so you actually have more clarity. “I’ve been there, done that, I’m not going to do this.” Life can be less dramatic, and also, people tend to see things more positively. As your time horizon shortens, you tend to focus on more emotionally meaningful goals. That’s research from the Stanford Longevity Center called the socio-emotional selectivity theory.

Do you mean that grandkids become more important than the job?

It could be grandkids, other family, or your circle of friends. As you get older you realize how little work adds to the joy in your life. At different stages of life, there are different things that give you balance. I tend to think you have more balance in your life as you get older. You have more choice of how you are going to spend your time.

You talk with young MBA students about older people in their lives. What do you discuss?

I’ve been the guest lecturer on elder care for the Work and Family class since 2007. It is a self-selected group who choose to take the class, but I’m always amazed at how many of them are already dealing with elder care, and I don’t mean their grandparents. They’re talking about their parents. They also talk about the financial responsibilities they feel they have to their parents. As men are taking more of a role in childcare, they are also more involved with elder care. The questions that tend to come up are about sibling relationships, not so much about taking on responsibilities for parents, but how I work it out with my siblings.

What is your advice on dealing with siblings?

The bottom line is to work on what is fair. Within a family, not everybody can do the same thing. One person may be able to provide more monetary input. Another person may be the closest to the parent, so they take on a role based on proximity. Another person may be mom or dad’s favorite, so they play that role. It doesn’t need to be equal, but it does need to be fair.

Another point is that somebody has to be the leader. And the other siblings can’t be shooting potshots at the leader. Conversely, that leader cannot have unyielding power. There has to be mutual respect.

What about finding balance for people who have small children and elders to care for?

We call that the sandwich generation, and that does come in when people have had children later in life, so they’re getting care responsibilities on both ends. Caregiver stress is real, so you need to find the balance that works for you. In some respects, it’s maintaining boundaries, that there’s only so much you can do for your parent, or so much you can do for your child, and you need to have a segment for you.

If you come from a functional family, caregiver stress sneaks up on you, because you want to do these things for your parents and/or your children. If you’re in a dysfunctional family, it can be just as stressful, but the cause of the stress is the perceived burden in that you don’t want to be doing this.

What do you mean by dysfunctional family?

Families that don’t work well together: I hate my mother; I hate my father; or I never liked my brother and sister since the sandbox. Forgiveness is really the only way to break through dysfunctional families. If you don’t forgive, you lose today and you lose the future. It’s like you’re lost in the past.

To get to forgiveness, think of your deathbed. Is that when you want to have the “aha moment” where you realize how much of life you wasted?

What are the two most important things to know about successful aging?

First and foremost is building and maintaining a social support network, which is primarily for most people the family, but it can also be family by choice. Your spouse is your most important relationship, but you can’t ignore other people in your life. You see that consistently across the globe in studies on successful aging.

I’m seeing more and more situations where people network around their interests. Some people join the gym when they’re retired, and they meet people that way. Two retired men I know met walking in the same place. One was in management and the other in a union. They started walking together and having conversations.

Elderly woman walking on a treadmill

The benefits of exercise. (Reuters)

The other thing that is key is physical exercise. Exercise is so beneficial to your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. It’s the best prescription for health that a doctor can give you. But the social network is really the elixir of life.

Esther Koch received her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1979. She is a consultant on Medicare and other aging advisory services through her firm Encore Management.

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