I wish there was a natural, sure-fire way to immunize my garden against weeds, especially as I’m getting older and my back and my joints don’t hold up as well to the stooping and pulling. I can mulch the area; that helps. And I can keep up the health of my purposeful plants, so their roots and bulk discourage unwanted visitors from rooting themselves. I do these things and try new ideas that come my way because I’d much rather build the health of my garden from the ground up than try to chase away invaders after they’ve already gotten comfortable.
That’s also how I feel about my own immune health and resiliency. The more I can support my healthy, active body and its inherent disease-fighting properties, the less often I am set back by long recoveries from colds and flu. In our later years, our immune systems can slow down with the rest of us, and older adults are at greater risk of catching infections and related complications. Let’s explore how seniors can strengthen their immune systems with regular lifestyle choices and practices that support a healthier body overall.
How-to Tips for Seniors to Strengthen Their Immune Systems
There may not be a sure-fire way to strengthen your immune system directly, but your healthy lifestyle can support your disease-fighting capacity indirectly. Remember that the human body is a network of interrelated systems that depend on each other. So, strengthening and supporting one aspect of your health will put you on track to boost your immunity and the body systems that support it.
Attempting to introduce all of these healthy practices at once could lead to burnout and discouragement. It’s a better idea to incorporate these immune-boosting strategies gradually, so your lifestyle can evolve around them for long-term benefit.
As we age and our bodies change, we may feel our appetites waning. At the same time, it’s important that our bodies receive adequate fuel to keep all of our internal systems running. At this time in our lives, it may be less about how much we are eating and more about ensuring we have the right combination of food groups, vitamins, and minerals.
One of the best nutritional tools you have is your awareness: notice how you feel when you eat certain foods and let it help guide your choices. If you feel fatigued even after you’ve digested your meal, you may have eaten something that doesn’t agree with your body. Likewise, if you find yourself feeling particularly energetic, take note of any foods that may have contributed to your state. Of course, you’ll always want to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors, as well as lean proteins, whole grains, and plant-based fats to feed your body the building blocks for a solid, healthy foundation.
If you’re a caregiver to an aging loved one, help them to select nutrient-dense and minimally processed food options, so they will take in the fuel they need even if they don’t eat large portions or if they have any digestive challenges. Read here for more ideas and guidance about nutrition for seniors.
Sleep gives our bodies the chance to regenerate. This rest and recovery time is even more important when our bodies are aging and more prone to fatigue—and it’s particularly critical when our immune systems are actively fighting infection and inflammation. Support your body and all of its functions with at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night on a regular schedule. To help ensure you get a good night’s rest, consider creating a small ritual each evening shortly before bedtime. Maybe you do some gentle stretches to relieve built-up tension, make a small cup of tea, and begin to relax with a book. When you do this every night, your body and mind will get used to the routine and know to expect sleep.
If you’re a caregiver, you can support an aging adult’s sleep process by promoting routines and consistency throughout the day as well. Plan meal times around the same time each day and exercise too. Read about some ways you can help an aging adult who suffers from insomnia.
Staying active into your later years with some mild to moderate exercise each week can help to keep your circulatory, respiratory, musculoskeletal, and other systems strong. When you have the chance to get outside and get some sun exposure, your body can also generate vitamin D, which researchers have found is an important ally for the immune system.
The best exercise is the kind that is right for you and your body. If running or even walking is too high impact, there are low-impact activities you can try instead, such as water aerobics, tai chi, and yoga.
If you’re a caregiver, you can be an exercise buddy for an older adult, help them to feel excited, and help them to set goals for their personal progress. This chair yoga practice may be a great place to start together.
Drinking enough water supports quality sleep, exercise, digestion, and overall energy. It even supports the immune system directly by facilitating the elimination of waste and movement of immune fluids. As a general rule, you should drink about half your weight in ounces or more per day. So, if you weigh 160 pounds, you should drink at least 80 ounces of water every day.
If you’re a caregiver, you can help your aging loved one remember to drink enough water each day. Tea, real fruit juice, and broth can count for a portion of their daily intake. Help them to keep beverages stocked that they enjoy and to avoid sugary options.
The hormones that help us to manage stress actually discourage our disease-fighting response, so avoiding stress is an important step in strengthening the immune system in seniors and in general. Have you ever heard the saying, “The surly bird gets the germ”? Just like in our gardens, it’s important to anticipate and prevent challenges like stress rather than struggle to reverse the effects once they are already underway.
All of the healthy practices we’ve already mentioned can help to minimize stress in your daily life. You can also counter stress with calming and meditative practices and with socialization opportunities that offset loneliness and depression, especially in older adults.
If you’re a caregiver, help your aging loved one to develop awareness of their moments of stress. Awareness is an important first step to transforming negativity and tension. Just as you join them in their exercise routine, you can also join them in stress-relieving practices like deep breathing, meditation, and even coloring, gardening, or socializing—whatever helps them to quiet their stress response.
Older adults should see their doctor at least once a year for a well visit and inquire about any vaccinations they may be due for. Getting vaccines, such as those for influenza and pneumonia, may mean that you avoid these infections altogether or that your recovery time is reduced. Read here to see if it may be time to find a geriatric doctor who can guide you toward healthy living at this phase of life.
If you’re a caregiver, you can help an aging adult to keep track of their health and medical needs, appointments, and medications or supplements. With your help, this journey may not feel quite as overwhelming for them, and it might even be a pleasant, positive experience!
Whereas in our youngest years exposure to germs can be productive in the development and strengthening of the immune system, in our later years we want to avoid infection and resulting inflammation whenever possible. So, frequent hand-washing, especially before eating and after touching the face, is much more than just a formality. It can mean we don’t introduce infectious diseases into our bodies.
If you’re a caregiver, you can help your aging loved one keep up with positive hygiene practices. But it’s also very important that you assume that positive behavior yourself, so you don’t contribute to their exposure. Commit to developing hand-washing habits and awareness when you’re handling things that might carry germs. You can also help to minimize environmental conditions such as exposure to smoke and poor air quality that can put stress on an aging adult’s system.
Finding Your Rhythm for Immune Strength and Resilience
Just as our bodies operate best when all of our systems are strong and working in harmony, we can really feel the negative effects when we’re in disharmony. All of our body’s operations are living, organic processes, and we support them every single day with our healthy habits. The more we can get in a rhythm with these immune-boosting strategies all year long, the more we can relax and enjoy life! Furthermore, everyone can benefit from these healthy ways of living, so caregivers and older adults can work together to hold themselves accountable and have fun with the journey.
Institute on Aging is committed to helping aging adults live independently, healthily, and happily. Give us a call at 415-750-4111 to find out how our home care services and community resources may open a door to your thriving lifestyle.