Ah, the golden years. A time for chess, knitting and bingo, plus the occasional 4 o'clock dinner followed by a letter to the grandkids. Sound familiar? Probably not, because many of today's seniors are more likely to get moving, eat fresh veggies from their gardens and text the grandkids about the new pictures on their Facebook wall. Part of being an active senior might include activities like board games, sewing and dining out with friends, but hobbies for the older generation have long been crossing over into what all ages enjoy.
Are you a senior? If you're in your mid-40s you're considered a senior in some parts of the world, but by most Western estimates "old age" falls within the 60- to 65-year range and older because that's the age set for many insurance benefits and pensions [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people aged 65 or older will more than double by 2030, and ideas for improving the quality of life for those living longer means increasing activity [source: CDC]. Maybe a more important question than "Are you a senior?" is "Are you an active senior?"
Whether looking to increase passive activity by exercising your mind or to increase physical activity by exercising your body -- or both -- take a look at how seniors are redefining and even extending their later years.
Georgia O'Keeffe, the famed American artist of flowers and desert landscapes, painted, drew and sculpted into her 96th year, and George Burns acted and made people laugh for three-quarters of a century. If you're thinking about taking up painting or auditioning for a play, you could have decades ahead to give artistic expression to who you are now and to what you've experienced in the past.
Art hobbies, whether sketching or water coloring, sculpting or taking photographs, can be for individual enjoyment, gift-giving or even extra income. Woodworking and carving whittle away the time while promoting nimble hands, relaxation and arm strength, as well as eye focus and mind activity. Portrait painting can add hours of time with friends and family while they pose and you aim at capturing their likeness. And learning to play an instrument could showcase a hidden talent or inspire a lot of laughing -- with you, not at you, of course. Combining any art form with the great outdoors is another option, and toting an easel, camera equipment or carving tools to capture a favorite landscape can make artistic hobbies more physical, too.
Performing arts are another option for ageless artists, and theater has been a popular choice at amateur and professional levels. From colleges, community centers and retirement homes to traveling troupes for the homebound, there are hundreds of senior theater groups in the United States, not to mention worldwide [source: Vorenberg]. Performances with a script in hand help seniors participate without having to memorize, and "edudramas" entertain as the actors educate peers on health and lifestyle issues through drama [source: Vorenberg]. Comedy, dance and singing are other performance options.
In recent years, advertising campaigns for senior health care companies have often featured an image or two of mature and fit men or women bobbing through a tough ocean swim or finishing laps in a pool. Connecting swimming with heath and wellness campaigns is a good fit because according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these are just some of the benefits of swimming for the aging:
- Decreases the risk of chronic illness
- Improves health for those with heart disease and diabetes
- Lessens osteoarthritis pain
- Improves joint health for anyone with rheumatoid arthritis
- Maintains or improves post-menopausal bone health
- Decreases depression and improves mood
Taking a dip in a lake or ocean outdoors or swimming laps indoors is a daily routine for some, and both provide a cardio workout and a chance to just wake up and refresh the mind and body. Conditioning through water ballet and water aerobics can bring opportunities to socialize, too. Community and club pools often feature special times slots for adult and senior swims, so it's easier to get lane time while connecting with peers.
Seniors in Central and Eastern Europe, Greece and elsewhere have been sharing fellowship in the water for thousands of years in spas and bath houses, making soaking and socializing a hobby in its own right. Many ethnic and senior communities in the United States continue this cultural practice.
Many a grandpa has been teased about "tinkering" with everything from cars to boats to motorcycles. Maybe there's a project truck in your own garage or an old barnacle of a boat upside down on oars in the driveway. There could even be a non-working classic Harley that family members secretly hope never rides well enough for imperiling "sweet old mom and dad." But restoring any of these machines is the hobby of senior enthusiasts worldwide. Bringing an old vehicle, piece of furniture or an entire home to life again involves detail work, creativity and troubleshooting that are great for the mind and body and often for the family, with projects sometimes crossing generations and turning into team efforts.
While these projects are mostly enjoyable hobbies, when a senior's expertise is needed for helping with rewiring, fence-painting, sewing fixes, and yard work or other needs, people are probably less likely to call it tinkering. Then, it's a way to fill free time for older family and friends who in reality, can be busier with hobbies and fix-it projects if in retirement than they were while working.
Stretching, Yoga, Pilates
Maybe a visual of getting stuck cross-legged on the floor or trying unsuccessfully to reach your toes comes to mind when you think about stretching no matter your age. But options for improving flexibility and preventing the stiffness that comes with age may be just a "Legs Up the Wall" or "Great Rejuvenator" pose away [source: Francina]. Yoga may be gaining popularity with seniors because it extends the spine and takes you upside down, at least enough to improve blood flow to the brain and heart and circulation overall [source: Francina]. Stretching exercises combined with meditation in a form called qigong have been foundations of Chinese health, with seniors meeting together for daily exercise.
Some stereotypes about yoga include believing that you have to be twisted into a pretzel or risk breaking a limb while balancing in bare feet. Yoga for older or less-flexible students can include props for balancing, lying comfortably and hanging on, and chair yoga can be done while seated [source: Associated Press]. Not all classes involve getting up and down from the floor, although if you can get up and down, doing it often will help you be able to do it for longer. Another misconception is that you'll need to subscribe to some kind of religious ritual, but many practitioners leave out the spiritual aspects. No need to "Om" or even "Amen," but if you're seeking spirituality with your stretch, Eastern branches and even Christian varieties of yoga are offered. Some even get serious about Laughter Yoga, an international practice involving real and fake laughing for health and happiness [source: Laughter Yoga International].
Travel can be a hobby whether you go anywhere or not. In a journey-is-the-destination kind of way, some enjoy being armchair travelers and soaking in pictures and stories of different cultures. Those with the resources and luxury of retiree time often make travel the main activity of their later years, venturing across the nation or across continents. Loading up an RV and hitting the road -- sometimes even trading traditional homes for mobile living -- appeals to many, while being a tourist in the place you're planted and discovering what your area has to offer, is a goal for others.
Senior men and women alike plan annual or semi-annual trips with friends that center on fishing, hunting, shopping or the arts, while snowbirds migrate from northern regions to the balmy South to join their peers for a season. Splitting time with different family members or bringing family to where you are and planning the trip agenda often makes travel a family affair, but solo travel and senior-specific trips make for a large and diverse travel industry for the over-50 sector. Finding senior travel discounts or special packages can be a click away, and even connecting with a like-minded solo traveler for sharing a room or enjoying a trip without having to go it alone is an option through online forums and travel companies [source: Frommer's].
Strolling in pairs or groups with hands clasped behind the lower back and conversation freely flowing is one appealing aspect of walking for seniors. Clipping along in tennis shoes at a local mall or on the beach and through the neighborhoods is another. Both lead to increased fitness often while promoting time together with peers. Some senior groups make it an annual or more frequent event to walk together to support a cause like breast cancer research or multiple sclerosis, and other groups make goals together to increase distance and fitness levels. Even circling the block after meals each day is a regular routine for many.
Walking is such a healthful activity that the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Lifelong Fitness Alliance (LFA) and the Stanford University Health Improvement Program designed a program for encouraging people over 50 to organize their own walking groups. A 10-week program called Stepping Strong includes a manual and pedometer, as well as individual nutrition and movement tracking calendars. It also issues a call to action for seniors interested in being Fitness Ambassadors who will volunteer to lead groups through the program [source: LFA]. If walking with friends and family is already a hobby or if you're already an unofficial "social director" for organizing outings, leading a Stepping Strong program could be a walk in the park for you.
If you've ever danced around in private to a favorite song or cut a rug in a formal class, you have probably felt the rush of enjoyment and feelings of good health that come with dancing. Whether attending partner classes with a spouse or friends -- or even using dance experience to teach and lead others -- there's a great reason to keep at it: Dancing can make you smarter [source: Powers]. Ballet, tap, swing and fitness dancing all are great for the body and cardiovascular health, and they build muscle and increase balance. And according to a 21-year study sponsored by the National Institute of Aging in the U.S., tripping the light fantastic improves thinking as well [source: Powers]. The study found that the harder the class and steps, the better the chance of increasing brain functioning through learning and making fast decisions while switching up steps. Free dancing, or just-for-fun social dancing, has shown to be really beneficial, too, because it involves thinking about your next steps (and maybe whether or not a jump-up-landing-in-the-splits move is really a good choice at your age and fitness level) [source: Powers].
If you love to dance but can't get partners or friends to join you even with appeals about health and fun and relieving stress, try letting them know that you're smarter than they are.
Gardening and Cooking
Planning and planting a vegetable garden or tending flowers and landscaping combine creativity, exercise and getting outdoors, making it a very popular hobby with seniors. Not only do gardening activities improve health through "gripping, stooping, lifting, stretching, walking, standing, kneeling, sitting and squatting" (phew!), they also provide a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment [source: Nardozzi]. Many garden just to beautify their homes or yards, and others may focus on homegrown herbs, setting up farm stands, or jarring, canning, pickling and preserving for friends and family. Getting a bucket of surplus tomatoes from a senior neighbor is almost always a summer perk.
Those who don't grow also make hobbies out of fruits and vegetables by focusing on transforming garden-variety ingredients into creative meals. Baking cookies is a standby in the repertoire of many grandmothers, but male and female seniors also relish cooking classes or just staying active in the kitchen -- maybe using up the catch of the day fish or something fresh from the garden.
Many people under age 50 get winded even thinking about a game of tennis or 18 holes of golf, but for many seniors, it's just par for the course. It is a proven law of physics that a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest, so it is a little easier for lifelong athletes to hit the courts and walk a course as seniors [source: NASA]. However, playing golf with the help of a cart and taking a look at newer versions of ball games like Pickleball make playing ball more accessible at all ages and fitness levels. One warning from the "initiated," though: Golf and competitive ballgames can be extremely addicting!
A slower paced, but no less enjoyable and social, option is bocce, or boccie, ball. Once it was best known in the United States as the pastime of older Italians in cities and retirement destinations like Florida, but bocce ball has a history dating back to ancient times and is played by seniors throughout the world at the amateur and competitive level [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].
Something that most community programs and nonprofits have in common is the help of one or more indispensible senior volunteers who give their time to get things done. Seniors serve at veterans homes, schools and churches and do everything from food prep to mentoring, and it is most often a labor of love that gives back to the volunteer, too. Helping others provides physical activities and emotionally uplifting connections, and it fills needs for organizations.
A passion for a cause or for the arts can lead to volunteering at a society or cultural organization as a museum guide or help desk volunteer, for example, and these passionate senior spokesmen and women may draw in new members. They also help free-up available funds by lessening the need for salaried staff.
Serving family and friends might not be considered a hobby, but providing childcare, meals or rides, and tutoring grandchildren or neighbor kids, is leisure time well-spent and well-appreciated. From providing for needy animals to planning social activities for homebound seniors -- or even those able but not motivated to get out -- making a hobby of serving is a sure way to never run out of things to do. It also enriches the lives of those who already have too much to do but just can't resist helping.
HowStuffWorks looks at a study showing just one hour of vigorous activity a week can keep seniors mobile and active.
More Great Links
- Associated Press. "Chair Yoga Catching on Among Senior Citizens." USA Today.com. Feb. 3, 2005. (May 9, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2005-02-03-chair-yoga_x.htm
- Austin, Denise. "Every Body Benefits from Pilates." Prevention Magazine online. Aug. 22, 2005. (May 9, 2011) http://www.prevention.com/health/fitness/belly-abs/denise-austin-s-pilates-workout-tips/article/8e3fd08f88803110VgnVCM20000012281eac____/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Health Benefits of Water-Based Exercise." April 12, 2010. (May 7, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/health_benefits_water_exercise.html
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Boccie Ball." Britannica.com. 2011. (May 10, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/70884/boccie
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Old Age." 2011. Britannica.com. (May 8, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/426737/old-age
- Francina, Suza. "Yoga Solutions for Healthy Aging." Eldr.com. March 31, 2007. (May 9, 2011) http://www.eldr.com/article/fitness/yoga-solutions-healthy-aging
- Frommer's. "Senior Travel Forum." Frommers.com. 2011. (May 10, 2011) http://www.frommers.com/community/forum.cfm/trip-ideas/senior-travel
- Heilman, Joan Rattner. "Life Looks Rosy for Gardeners." AARP Bulletin. April 12, 2011. (May 6, 2011) http://www.aarp.org/health/medical-research/info-04-2011/life-looks-rosy-for-gardeners.html
- Judd, Terry. "Relishing Pickleball: Senior Citizens Have Met Their Match." Muskegon Chronicle, MLive.com. Sept. 26, 2010. (May 5, 2011)http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/muskegon/index.ssf/2010/09/relishing_pickleball_senior_ci.html
- Laughter Yoga International. "What Is Laughter Yoga?" 2011. (May 9, 2011) http://www.laughteryoga.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=85&Itemid=265
- Lifelong Fitness Alliance (LFA). "Overview: Stepping Strong." 2011. (May 10, 2011) http://www.50plus.org/stepping-strong/overview/
- Nardozzi, Charlie. "Gardening Improves Health of Older Adults." National Gardening Association. 2011. (May 8, 2011) http://www.garden.org/articles/articles.php?q=show&id=3045
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). "The First and Second Laws of Motion." Fairman, Jonathan, ed. August 1996. (May 10, 2011) http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/k-12/WindTunnel/Activities/first2nd_lawsf_motion.html
- Powers, Richard. "Use It Or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter." Stanford.edu. 2011. (May 8, 2011) http://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/smarter.htm
- USA.gov. "Overview of the Senior Pass." 2011. (May 9, 2011) http://store.usgs.gov/pass/senior.html
- USA.gov. "Travel and Recreation Tips for Seniors." 2011. (May 9, 2011) http://www.usa.gov/Topics/Seniors/Travel.shtml
- Vorenberg, Bonnie L. "Senior Citizens Forming Theatre Groups Across Nation." SeniorJournal.com. Aug. 4, 2004. (May 7, 2011) http://seniorjournal.com/NEWS/Entertainment/4-08-01Theatre.htm