3 ways to live well into old age

When it comes to ageing, you’ve probably heard the mantra: eat healthily, stay active and get regular check-ups. But how much do you know about the importance of laughing, learning and being listened to?

There’s no way to sugar-coat it: getting older is inevitable. But while you can’t control your age, you can put things in place to keep you feeling young – no matter your graduation year.

To find out more, we chatted to members of La Trobe alumni community whose work intersects with ageing in surprising ways. Among them are laughter therapist Ros Ben-Moshe (Graduate Certificate in Health Promotion, 2007), whose workshops help people embrace laughter and joy; social entrepreneurs Danny Finley and Eva Gruen (La Trobe Accelerator Program, 2018), who’ve launched a campaign for intergenerational conversations; and early childhood educator Kim Biasio (Bachelor of Education, 2019), who works at a pioneering children’s centre that's co-located in an aged care home.

Hear their unique perspectives on why staying socially involved, keeping your mind intellectually active and maintaining a sense of humour are crucial to ageing well now and into your (much!) later years.

1. Harness laughter's mind-body benefits

When was the last time you had a hearty belly laugh with friends or family? Did it leave you feeling more joyful? More positive? Perhaps even ‘more alive’?

If this sounds like your experience, you’re not alone. Through her work and research, health promotion alumna Ros Ben-Moshe has discovered an impressive array of physiological and wellbeing benefits from laughter that can help us live a happier life.

Today, as a laughter therapy practitioner and founder of LaughLife Wellbeing Programs, Ros is teaching others how to activate a laughter mindset. Since first discovering laughter therapy she’s trained over 120 staff in more than 30 aged care organisations to practice laughter yoga with their residents.

So how did she come to embrace the infamous adage – ‘laughter is the best medicine’ – as a career? According to Ros, it all started in a room of septuagenarians.

“My first experience of laughter therapy was with older people aged 70-plus. Together, we started doing the laughter session and the transformation was incredible: their twinkling eyes, their exuberance, more chatter. By the end I didn’t even notice their age! I was so engaged with how they’d come alive in such a short period of time. It was a powerful experience,” she says.

Ros is also an Adjunct Lecturer in La Trobe’s School of Public Health and Psychology where, along with fellow academic Dr Julie Ellis, she piloted the Laugh out Loud (LOL) project in residential aged care facilities. Older residents did a session of laughter yoga once a week for six weeks, which involved simulated laughter exercises, deep breathing and clapping. After only 15 minutes of laughter, their blood pressure and heart rate had decreased, their moods had lifted and their scores on essential indicators of happiness had improved.

“Laughter is a very aerobic activity. The more you laugh, the more you breathe, which means your oxygen exchange is better, your blood flow improves, you’re stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system and you’re improving your immune function,” Ros explains.

Through her workshops, Ros has also witnessed extraordinary changes among older people with dementia. She’s had patients communicate unexpectedly, speaking up to tell her what exercise comes next. And she’s also seen people’s laughter and smiles return.

“Laughter is very evocative, so it takes people straight back to a time in their lives when they felt joy. In one session I facilitated, we were doing the motorbike laugh. It sounds like a motorbike being revved – you know, a laughter throttle! And as we were laughing, a woman in her ’90s suddenly remembered how she used to ride pillion when she was younger. She had this wonderful energy; it was pure joy.”

But you don’t need to wait until elderhood to start leveraging laughter. You can start by trying Ros’ heart-warming smile meditation right now.

“In our given climate, where so much is out of our control, what is in our control is how we respond. Waking up with a smile on your face really does set the day right. You’ve got the energy of the smile, rather than the energy of the grimace,” she says.

“Create opportunities to smile and to laugh, and don’t hold back! And don’t leave it to chance – practise, practise, practise. The more you place a conscious level of awareness on smiling and laughing, the more you’ll rewire your brain towards that positivity, no matter your age.”

If you’re keen to learn more about the health benefits of a good laugh, or simply tap into a more joyful mindset, why not join Ros’ upcoming short course, Laughter. Resilience & Wellbeing? The course is just one of a range of new professional short courses offered online by La Trobe University. They’re a great way to continue your commitment to learning, even once you’ve finished your degree.

2. Stay curious through lifelong learning

Speaking of learning, you might have heard that it has great benefits for longevity, such as being open to different perspectives, building new neural pathways and even delaying the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. But remember, you don’t need to learn alone. In fact, learning becomes even better when it happens among people from different generations. (Just ask any mature aged student!)

The work of education alumna Kim Biasio offers a great example. Kim teaches at the innovative Generational Early Learning Centre in north-west Victoria, which is co-located at an aged care home. The centre’s approach supports children’s development through intergenerational activities, improving the wellbeing of aged care residents while offering new experiences to children.

As one of the first of its kind in Australia, the early learning centre has given Kim a firsthand account of the value of learning for young and old.

“The residents walk by the children’s centre windows and when the door opens, it’s very special. I watch their faces change. They smile, and their eyes smile, too,” she says.

Together, the children and residents read stories and help each other learn through fun, play-based activities, honing their curiosity, creativity and imagination. Kim recalls seeing residents’ delight during a ‘magic milk’ science experiment.

“As the residents watched food dye disperse through milk with a drop of dishwashing liquid, I saw a glister in their eyes. They were learning, too,” she says.

The impacts of learning for the residents are so positive that some don’t want to go back to their building when class is over. To Kim, it makes sense.

“I’ve always seen learning as a lifelong process. Education isn’t just 13 years of schooling, it’s beyond that. Continuing to learn helps you discover new things, make new connections and keep your brain active. You create that feeling of a young mindset each time you realise, ‘Hey, this is something I didn’t know! There’s still so much I can learn’,” she says.

Working at the centre has impressed on Kim the importance of staying inquisitive as she grows older. It’s also shown her the remarkable effects of intergenerational exchange.

“I often think of how many elderly people have no family living in the area, or who might not have any visitors. These interactions provide residents with an opportunity to step out of their building and see children playing, laughing and growing, which they otherwise mightn’t have. It helps carry stories and history between generations and allows older people to make connections in our fast-changing world,” she says.

“As I age, I hope I can continue to be curious about how stuff works, to keep an open mind and an eagerness to learn. I also hope I can be part of such a ground-breaking service, helping people to inspire and be inspired by a younger generation.”

3. Connect through meaningful conversation

Social entrepreneurs Danny Finley and Eva Gruen have also tapped into the power of intergenerational exchange. Having received seed funding through La Trobe University’s Accelerator Program, the pair launched I Wish I’d Asked, an intergenerational campaign that unites young people and seniors through conversation and skill sharing activities.

“We wanted to see if we could do anything about the loneliness issue in ageing communities, and we discovered that intergenerational connection is absolutely essential,” says Danny.

“Bringing diverse age groups together benefits all generations. It’s been a wonderful experience to see students (who we refer to as ‘Apprentices’), and seniors (‘Silver Warriors’) develop rapport with each other.”

Key to the program is bringing back the lost art of listening. Young people are taught interviewing skills and are challenged to communicate outside of social media, swapping stories with older people face-to-face. In return, older generations have the chance to share their wisdom and life experience – and be heard.

“There’s a lot to be said for learning to listen. One thing we’ve noticed with the Silver Warriors is how much they enjoy being listened to, even when they often repeat the same story,” says Danny. “Being able to communicate in life is paramount, no matter your age.”

If you’re keen to develop your ears, listening is a skill that can be practised and mastered. Through La Trobe’s short course in counselling skills, for instance, you can learn techniques for active, non-judgmental listening, as well as different approaches to questioning and summarising.

From Danny's perspective, the rewards of giving your time and attention to someone in conversation, and perhaps even being listened to in return, are key to a life well-lived.

“Eva and I are fortunate in that we have communication skills from previous careers, yet we’ve benefited enormously from I Wish I'd Asked. Listening gave us a feeling of doing something good. It's been a joy for us.”

The program has shown that conversations really do create connections. Seniors who’ve joined I Wish I'd Asked have reported feeling happier and more secure, content and confident. And the young people have been shown valuable examples of what it’s like to age well.

“Many of the Silver Warriors’ attitudes are inspiring. One lady, aged 105, has social engagements booked every day – she never gives up on communicating and interacting with others. Another Warrior works in his beautiful garden, and a lady we saw often was busy every day making artificial flowers. If these people made up a corporation, their company value would be ‘make the best of every day’,” says Danny.

So, if you’d like to be a 'warrior' when you hit your hundredth year – or even just have a little more laughter, learning and listening in your life – take Danny's advice and start today.

“We’re all destined to be older, and preparation for ageing ought to begin at school. Learn early that being focused and occupied will be an asset all through life. And understand that respect and empathy for others makes the inevitability of ageing so much easier.”