As a caregiver, you know that emotional support and physical support are equally important in caring for your loved one. It’s not an easy task, and one that grows even more complex when your loved one’s feelings are strongly tied to their physical abilities. No two people in old age share the same physical capabilities. Maybe your loved one is wheelchair-bound, maybe he/she is still running around the track. But no matter their abilities, everyone has dreams, even if they’re too embarrassed to share them. Often times, seniors believe that their aging bodies are unable to take them on the journey that’s required to reach their goals, so they don’t even bother to try.
It’s a common misperception that once you reach 40, you’re “over the hill,” and you begin an unending decline. But recent research has disproved this myth from both a mental and physical standpoint. A 2010 study in Medicine & Science in Sport Exercise measured the functioning motor units in lifelong competitive runners in their 60s and discovered that their leg muscles retained nearly as much strength as the leg muscles of active 25 year olds. And a longitudinal study started in 1958 has challenged researchers’ notions of the mind’s “inevitable decline.”
Just as all bodies are different, cognitive functioning similarly varies from senior to senior. Remarkably, the National Institute on Aging has discovered that a full 15 to 20 percent of have absolutely no detectable changes in their memories or abilities to reason as they age. The more practice the brain and the body receive, the better they function over time. That’s why it’s important that your loved one not only continue to dream, but actually reach for those dreams.
Below you’ll learn about five senior athletes who’ve done just that: set ambitious goals and accomplish them. Does your loved one need to aim for an Ironman? Probably not. But talking to your loved one about their goals and figuring out small but concrete steps toward reaching those goals can empower, energize, and excite them. Progress reinforces behavior, and before you know it, your loved one may need to find a new dream! Ask you loved one about both their physical and mental goals. A good way to make progress on their physical goals is to read “Exercise Together with Your Senior Loved One!” and “Walking: A Stealthy Life-Changer for All Ages.”
Share these seniors’ incredible stories with your loved one, and let their victories inspire you both.
#1: Diana Nyad
In 2013, 63-year-old Nyad became the first person to complete the swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. The feat is evidence of her fierce determination. This was her fifth attempt, 35 years after her first. She’d been thwarted by the route’s extreme challenges during her four previous bids. Hazards included staying on course, asthma attacks, inclement weather, jellyfish stings, dehydration, hypothermia, and exhaustion. When she finally made it to shore nearly 53 hours after her start in Havana, she told reporters, “I got three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”
She holds numerous records for other swimming accomplishments, including the standing distance record for non-stop swimming without a wetsuit. Nyad has written four books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles. She and her best friend launched BravaBody, a company that provides online exercise advice to women over 40. She channels her persisting fury and the struggle to overcome the sexual abuse she experienced as a child into exercise and a determination to overcome seemingly impossible feats. She’s dealt with her trauma through strength and bravery, and she serves as a model for anyone fighting with personal demons.
#2: Yuchiro Miura
In 1970, Miura became the first person to ski on Everest, 33 years before his first summit climb. He started at South Col and descended almost 4,200 vertical feet. The film “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” is based on this success, and was the first sports film to win an Academy Award for best documentary. In 2013, at 80 years old, Miura became the oldest person to summit Mount Everest. He broke his own world record that he’d set in 2003, despite battling diabetes, undergoing three heart surgeries, and recovering from a complicated operation to repair his shattered pelvis in the decade between the summit attempts. After his pelvic surgery, doctors told him he might never be able to walk again.
Nonetheless, he persisted, rebuilding his fitness routine until he was ready to tackle the penultimate peak once more. “As I went down, I felt the probability I would die was 100 percent—120 percent, even,” Miura said of the slog down Everest after reaching the top. He needed to be airlifted from the Advanced Base Camp at 6500 meters rather than the Base Camp at 5364 meters, but he nonetheless accomplished his goal. He reflects on his victory that “I had a dream to climb Everest at this age. If you have a dream, never give up. Dreams come true.” Despite his near-death experience and yet another heart surgery for his cardiac arrhythmia, Miura continues to train for ambitious skiing descents as well as for a fourth Everest bid at 90 years old.
Buder entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent at 23 years old. In 1970, she left the congregation to form a new and non-traditional community of Sisters that gave her the freedom to choose her own religious practices and lifestyle. She started running when she was 48 at the encouragement of a Catholic priest and didn’t enter her first race until 1977. After that, she joined a running club, where she learned about the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. She says of her inspiration that “it’s amazing how God leads you down his little pathway and all you have to do is say, ‘Yes, I’ll try it,’ and then all these doors and windows get opened if you follow the lead of the Shepherd.” At 52, she competed in her first triathlon and from then on, she was hooked, practicing on a nephew’s bike until she was eventually ready for a full Ironman. She completed the event in Hawaii in 2005 at 75 years of age, earning her the nickname the “Iron Nun.” She’s the oldest woman to ever finish the notorious event, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run.
The year after her first triathlon, she beat her own record just before the 17 hour cut-off time. She estimates she’s completed about 360 triathlons by now. She was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014, was featured in a 2016 Nike commercial, and has travelled all over the world to share her inspiring story. Of the lessons she’s learned along the way, there are three she says are the most important: “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do; don’t pay attention to how old you are, only focus on how old you feel; and be patient—one of my worst enemies is patience, I’m still trying to fine-tune it so that I’m able to stop and smell the roses.”
Porchon-Lynch, whose mother died in childbirth, was raised by her uncle in Pondicherry, India. At 12 years old, she and her uncle spent a few weeks traveling with Mahatma Gandhi. As a young woman, she danced in a troupe that entertained soldiers in Europe during WWII, eventually migrating to Hollywood and acting with MGM. She founded the Westchester Institute of Yoga in 1982 and has now practiced yoga for more than 70 years and taught for more than 45 years. Porchon-Lynch is currently 98 years old and last year she earned a spot in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest yoga teacher. She guides a 90-minute practice in Hartsdale, New York that combines yoga styles. She regularly demonstrates the correct alignment, although after three hip replacements, she struggles to achieve the perfect positions on her right side. Even so, she’s capable of holding even the most complex and demanding yoga poses.
She radiates confidence in all areas of her life. She’s always seen in heels, which she claims elevate her consciousness. She continues to drive herself around, competes in ballroom dancing competitions, stars in national athletic campaigns, travels all over the world to lead yoga workshops, and is the award-winning author of the book Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being Through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master. Porchon-Lynch has cultivated the potential and spiritual power in countless people across the globe. So what’s her tip for such long-lasting happiness? She says, “Every morning I wake up and say this is going to be the best day of my life—and it is.” She refuses to fixate on bad things that may or may not happen, she doesn’t judge others, and she always wakes up with a smile on her face. These practices can help anyone lead a happy life. No matter how old you are, her mantra should be taken to heart: “There is Nothing You Cannot Do.”
On May 31, 2015, 92-year-old Thompson crossed the finish line at the Rock’n’Roll San Diego Marathon, becoming the oldest woman to finish a marathon. The year prior, she’d beaten the 90-94 age group world record by more than 2 hours with a time of 7:07:42. She’s an all-around impressive woman: grandmother of 10, concert pianist, and cancer survivor. She lost her husband of 67 years to cancer earlier in 2015 and she ran the event shortly after receiving radiation therapy to treat squamous cell carcinoma on her legs. Although Thompson had run the San Diego race 16 times since 1999, three days before the event, she remained unsure of her chances, saying, “I’ll be the most surprised person if I finish it. I hope I will!”
Through a combination of running and walking, she completed the course with an average pace of just under 17 minutes per mile. The fame and attention she received from her victory surprised her, but she was happy to inspire her peers to keep reaching for their goals. She said, “I think if I can do it, anybody can do it, because I wasn’t trained to be a runner. But I have also found that it’s very invigorating. I feel like a million dollars when I’m finished.”