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The weekend before my great-grandmother passed away at 98-years-old, she took me outside to plant sunflowers. Her daughter and granddaughter put up a fuss, claiming that it was too hot outside, and that she should rest instead.
She just waved a hand and motioned for me to help her stand up.
“I’m going to teach my great-granddaughter how to garden,” she said.
I think we were all a little bit surprised. In her old age, Nora wasn’t usually so lucid.
It was hot that day (the sunflowers wouldn’t survive the sweltering heat waves of the next few months,) but my great-grandmother didn’t seem to mind. Under her sun visor, she was all smiles.
As she walked me through the steps of preparing the flowerbed and spreading the seeds in the fresh soil, my great-grandmother was radiating joy. Of course, she was always excited to spend time with family, but this was something different.
This energy and warmth had something to do with gardening.
In the years since her passing, I’ve always been incredibly grateful for the chance to share that afternoon with her. I was able to see first-hand how a simple task, like caring for a garden, could have such a powerful impact on a woman who had lived for a century. The fact that something as small as planting a seed could still put such a radiant smile on her face astounded me and pushed me to find more information on the power of leisure activities on the elderly.
As it turns out, the benefits of leisure activities for everyone are vast, but they can have a particularly powerful effect on the mental health of middle-aged and advanced-aged citizens.
Why should we focus on older individuals?
As middle age passes into advanced years, our senior citizens have a difficult transition. The things they took for granted in youth, such as mobility and memory, have become less accessible in older age. Even the most joyful and lighthearted of people have to admit that this loss of function can be frustrating, scary, and depressing. The awareness of this slowing down can be especially accentuated in retired individuals, who can no longer focus on a career or feel a sense of fulfillment in their jobs.
Luckily, there are ways to ease the transition. Researchers across the world have been searching for solutions to the problems associated exclusively with the experience of aging, and what they found was something that community centers and elderly facilities have been saying all along: creative hobbies are good for our mental state and physical health.
Multi-cultural methods: what are they doing in Japan?
A 2015 study (1) from the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan sought to put previous claims of the effectiveness of certain leisure activities to the test. Though they disproved earlier beliefs that participating in social activities could improve mental health in middle-aged and elderly individuals, they did find some overall uplifting benefits to other leisure activities.
Their findings found, for instance, that hobbies, cultural activities, physical exercise, and sports all improved the mental health of elderly Japanese citizens. The effect was compounded when such activities were shared with a companion or group.
What about Australians?
A similar study (2) was conducted by three scholars in 2013 exploring the effect of hobbies on the mental health of elderly women living in Australia. Their impetus for conducting the study was a body of precedent publications that, although dealing with the benefits of creative activities on mental wellbeing, had largely excluded the effects of such hobbies on the older generation.
Their definition of creative hobby was expansive: everything from needlework to photography to china painting was included in study.
And their findings were incredible:
Women involved in such activities were more likely to be socially engaged and showed a lower tendency toward “osteoarthritis, stroke, depression or anxiety/nervous disorder compared with women not involved in those hobbies” (2, page 7). These women were also more likely to be in physically good shape in terms of functionality and enjoy an overall higher quality of life.
The reasoning for these benefits is still somewhat unclear. Experts believe that these types of hobbies probably improve mental health by lowering stress, sparking cognitive activity, and producing feelings of fulfillment and pride in participants.
How can we use this information?
We can all agree that investing our elderly population is a valuable use of effort and resources. After all, they are our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They are future versions of ourselves, as we navigate our own aging process. We certainly wouldn’t be here without them.
And in this vulnerable time in their lives, we should put this scientific knowledge to good use.
There are lots of possible workshops that retirees and try out or even start themselves such as paint-and-sip classes, stand up paddle boarding, water aerobics, yarn bombing (the rebellious act of covering public spaces with crocheted or knitted works of art). These are just a few examples of the plethora of wacky, fun, unique hobbies out there.
This is one of the reasons why ClassBento was started, to make it easier for retirees to try out new hobbies and also allow them to teach their passions and get paid, giving them purpose back in their lives.
Our elders deserve it
Based on my personal experience with my great-grandmother, I cannot understate the effect of leisure activities on elderly individuals. Seeing the smile light up her face when her advanced years had caused her so much strain and exhaustion was truly a gift that I would encourage every young person to be a part of.
So get the older people in your lives involved in a creative pursuit. It will benefit you both!