When your spouse's doctors advise a healthier diet and exercise but you don't see those changes being made at home, you're likely to want to take action. As a supportive spouse, you want to help your loved one live a long time, avoid medical procedures and illnesses, and cut down on that handful of prescription pills each morning and night.
First, accept that change may not come easily. In later years, we become creatures of habit, and some of our comfort foods will be quite difficult to give up or limit. Your spouse may fight your suggestions or rebel against your strict rules. Be gentle and remind him or her that you're acting out of love and concern.
Aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day. "Lead by example," says Nicole Clancy, a certified fitness trainer and medical exercise specialist. Rather than be a nag when you encourage your spouse to go for a walk, "say, 'It's a beautiful day outside; let's walk to breakfast,'" Clancy says. "'The grandkids will be here soon; let's walk to the corner to greet them.' 'Parking is a bit tight; let's walk from the dry cleaners to the pharmacy.'"
Clancy suggests combining exercise with social outings. "Exercise is way more fun if we're doing it with our friends," she says. "For example, coordinate a coffee group after the morning gym visit. Schedule a walk-and-talk visit with longtime neighbors who've been traveling. Enlist the help of an exercise professional and plan for a small group circuit class along with your favorite music. The small informal fitness format will be less intimidating." If your spouse prefers solo exercise, arrange for him or her to swim laps in the pool while you do your water aerobics.
Many seniors are signing up for charity walks or bike ride events. "Encouraging friendly competition or goal setting is an instant way to improve motivation for ourselves and others," Clancy says. "Register to participate in an event that supports a cause near and dear to your heart. Many communities sponsor walking or athletic events with a local nonprofit as the beneficiary. Your spouse will be inspired to head out for daily walks to prep for the event, knowing his/her participation is raising awareness. Encourage others to join you, and form a team. Choosing to participate in honor of a loved one will also encourage activity. Make the outing about the cause, not the fitness."
Improving your spouse's diet can be a challenge if he or she enjoys fast food or nighttime snacks, so endeavor to introduce healthier options gradually. It's a wise idea to speak with your doctor or a nutritionist in order to learn what's advised for your spouse's particular health issues. You might be encouraged to make hearty minestrone as a dinner once a week, switch from 2 percent milk to 1 percent, add leafy greens to stews, or drink more green tea.
Linda Hollinger-Smith, Ph.D., vice president of Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, says: "Nutritional needs change as we age. Older adults must ensure they're consuming the right kind and the right amount of food. One of the main goals for older adults' diets is to increase nutrition while intaking fewer calories. This can be done by consuming daily recommended servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, consuming more fiber and including low-fat, high-protein meats into your diet. In general, older adults should avoid anything containing sugar, salt and caffeine -- basically anything that may interfere with organ function or digestion.
"Also avoid saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol -- such as red meat, cheese, any type of junk food (chips, crackers, ice cream) and prepackaged or frozen meals, because eating too much of any of these may increase the risk of heart disease. As you support your spouse, start by serving fruits at breakfast and as desserts and trying new recipes to add more antioxidant-, fiber- and calcium-rich foods to your weekly menus. An immediate change you can make is to eat monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats -- found in fish, nuts and vegetable oils -- to reduce saturated fat calories in your diet. And eating a diet rich in potassium helps counterbalance sodium's harmful effects on blood pressure."
Sleep is an important health element. Without it, our bodies and minds don't function as they should. "Contrary to popular belief, older adults require as much sleep as they did when they were younger," Hollinger-Smith says. So encourage a regular sleep schedule, which might involve eliminating nighttime snacks and going to bed a half-hour earlier.
Praise your spouse when he or she makes a smarter health choice, and celebrate when your spouse receives better medical test results from your new, healthier lifestyle.