Aging well involves positive outlook, S.F. panelists say

Preventive maintenance and community involvement are key to avoiding many of the problems faced in aging.

So said panelists at a symposium titled "Honoring Our Aging Parents," held earlier this year at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

"The people who make it are the people who do so because they make adjustments as they get older, but recognize that our souls remain young," said Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco and one of three panelists.

Dr. Jay Luxenberg, a specialist in geriatrics and chief of medical services at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, concurred. The answer to preventing long-term and possibly dangerous problems lies in staying active and connected with the world, but also recognizing inescapable limitations.

"As you get older, the chances of crashing that car get higher," Luxenberg said. "It would depress anyone to lose that car, that independence. The best thing [younger people] can do is help them change their mindset with age, while encouraging them to stay active. That will help them keep that independence."

The panel discussion, which drew a multigenerational audience of more than 100, focused on issues such as taking care of parents with debilitating diseases and parents who are unable to live unassisted anymore.

Participants agreed that keeping active is important, but when health problems make it too difficult to do so, Luxenberg said, it is important to consider the types of assisted-living programs that are available for the elderly.

"The fact is, no one wants to live in a nursing home unless they need it. But there is a spectrum of various other services that are available for people today."

The problem, he warned, is that unless people have some sort of insurance to cover these expenses, older adults or their children can end up paying for most of these costly services out-of-pocket.

"My advice for staying happy is to stay healthy and be rich," Luxenberg quipped. "If you're not, options are limited. California has minimal house care and nursing home space."

Panelists also looked at some of the grimmer statistics about aging: Once every 83 minutes, an older adult commits suicide. National statistics show that people 65 years of age and older are at incredible risk for severe depression due to health problems, isolation and loneliness, which can — and does — lead to such drastic measures as taking one's life.

But there is good news as well.

The Jewish community of San Francisco is one of the best places in which aging parents can live, suggested panelist Patrick Arbore, director of the Center For Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services at the Goldman Institute on Aging.

"The Jewish community has such a sense of belonging in San Francisco," he said. "It helps lower the suicide rate. It shows that it doesn't have to happen."

Arbore, who has spent more than 30 years working in the field of elderly suicide prevention, was one of three panelists at the San Francisco symposium.

"It's said that the worst thing in the world is to be old; the next worst thing is to be old and ill; and the next worst thing is to be old and ill and poor," said Arbore. "That's why it's so important that [older adults] know they can turn to their families. It's one of the more important links to healing depression."

When assisted-living appears to be the best option for aging adults, however, it is very important for children to listen to their parents to discern what they want in a home environment, panelists agreed. What parents want, they stressed, is often quite different than what their children have in mind.

"We'll want the Internet, for instance. Our parents don't want that. It's so important to ask them what they want," said Luxenberg.