Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins fulfilled a lifelong dream in June 2019 by running a 100-meter-dash—and taking home the gold. This might not sound very newsworthy, but it attracted attention from journalists around the world.
That’s because Hawkins is a spry 103 years old. With this race at the 2019 National Senior Games, she became the oldest person to not only run—but win—the 100-meter dash at the National Senior Games for the women’s 100-plus age division. In fact, many senior elite athletes prove that age is a state of mind.
Changing population means changing activities
For the first time in America’s history, the United States Census Bureau projects that our Baby Boomer-and-beyond population will outnumber children. It’s undeniably important that these seniors stay active and engaged in their golden years. Physical activity at any age is vital to a healthy lifestyle, but studies show that physical activity is just as beneficial to those in the later stages of life. For example, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, aerobic exercise brings continued benefits for both cardiovascular and skeletal health in senior men and women. Yes, you can be fit after 55.
Physical activity as a life-changing hobby
But, it’s not just physical activity that’s important. The positive effects of staying emotionally and mentally engaged are just as crucial for seniors to maintain cognitive functions. A PLOS Medicine finding shows that “more frequent social contact during mid-late life was associated with a lower risk of dementia over 28 years’ follow-up and a better cognitive trajectory during the subsequent 15 years.” That’s why having a favorite hobby or pastime should be a vital part of every retired person’s routine.
Retired? Might be time for a new hobby
Retirees naturally experience a lot more free time once they’ve left the daily grind of their careers behind. For some of them, a hobby, whether new or formerly on the back burner, can turn into something much more meaningful. Many seniors use these hobbies not only for their own benefit, but to enrich the lives of others as well. A Japan Epidemiological Association finding shows that having hobbies and a life’s purpose may extend your longevity and help to make those golden years as healthy as can be.
Hobbies can provide a great transition in retirement, keeping the brain active, improving cognitive functioning and preventing cognitive decline.
Keeping your brain fit offers many rewards. “Hobbies can provide a great transition in retirement, keeping the brain active, improving cognitive functioning and preventing cognitive decline,” says Dr. Urszula Klich, a clinical psychologist, speaker, and the president of the Southeast Biofeedback and Clinical Neuroscience Association. “This is why so many neurologists recommend doing crossword puzzles, word finds or sudoku games.”
Hobbies Can Take on a Life of Their Own
We have 10 ideas if you’re looking to find a new activity that will make your life richer and more productive—and also bring more joy, connection and enrichment to others.
Scuba Diving. If scuba diving was one of your favorite activities when you were younger, or it's just something you always wanted to try, don’t let your age stop you from discovering what lies beneath the waves. Dive Training Magazine cautions that there may be a few caveats for older divers, as you want to make sure you’re physically fit enough for the stress scuba diving can take on the body. (Get your doctor’s ok before your next trip.)
If you’re a seasoned diver, consider starting a divers group for seniors. You could even organize a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a stunning diving location, such as The Great Barrier Reef—as a “bucket list” trip for your diving buddies. Maybe you could teach a few snorkeling classes to those who always wanted to dive, but never took the plunge.
Astronomy. We’re never too old to stargaze. Astronomy enthusiasts can pass on their love of the stars to others in many ways. Start an astronomy group for seniors in your area. You can hold monthly meetings at a local park or planetarium, or meet up for astronomical events. Maybe you could teach others about what’s beyond the clouds in free educational presentations at your local library or retirement home.
Fly fishing. Your fishing gear doesn’t have to sit in the closet and collect dust. If fly fishing was your weekend hobby while you were working—and something you just never seemed to have enough time to do—now is the time to pull up your boots and hit the water.
Now, you could use your expertise to introduce others to fly fishing. Head to your local fishing spot with a group and teach them how to fill their dinner plate and their lives by soaking in the benefits of being outdoors. If you’re looking for a more organized way to get involved, Let’s Go Fishing introduces seniors, veterans and the disabled to fishing through excursions and trips. Plus, this group is always looking for volunteers and new locations to set up a chapter. Contact them to see if there’s one in your area, and if there isn’t, why not start your own!
Painting. A study by the National Endowment of the Arts, in conjunction with The George Washington University, shows that older people who took part in art activities at least once a week enjoyed better health, had fewer doctor visits and used less medication. “Painting is a wonderful way to express yourself and also to heal,” says Crystal V. Pizarro, a New Jersey-based National Certified Counselor and Holistic Life Coach. “People learn how to censor themselves through human language. However, art tends to be a pure expression of our soul and journey.”
You can get started by visiting your local arts and crafts stores for a painting night, or by finding a group lesson. Even better, if you’re a retired artist or art teacher, consider using your talent and skills to color the lives of others. Reach out to local libraries, preschools or community organizations to offer painting lessons to children and adults.
Knitting. If you think only "old people" knit, think again. Knitting is having a renaissance among people of all ages and has been shown to have health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure. Your family members might truly love (and wear) your handmade sweaters and scarves, so maybe it’s time to sell or gift those nifty pieces outside your family. If you’d like to make a little money from something you love, consider setting up a vendor’s table at a local craft fair, or sell your beautiful wearable creations on Etsy.
It's also a great way to provide community service. For example, contact your local NICU, and use your needle skills to help babies at risk by knitting caps, blankets or booties for these tiny patients. Pizarro, a NICU mother of a premature baby herself, says the knitted hat given to her infant daughter helped her feel less lonely during that arduous journey. “I even kept it as a keepsake,” she says. “Knitting those hats helps others connect to a beautiful cause larger than themselves.”
If you’re a knitting newbie, pretty much anywhere that sells yarn offers knitting classes. Knitting can also be an amazing club activity, so look for (or start) a local knitting group. Of course, if you’re a knitting maven, take the leap and attend the an expo like The New York Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhineback, NY, Vogue Knitting Live or a local show in your community.
Home Improvements. Have you always been good at fixing things? Or maybe you’ve just retired from your own home improvement business. Use your handyperson skills within the retirement community live in, or volunteer at one if you don’t. Many retirees find themselves living in deteriorating homes and can’t do the work on their own and can’t afford to pay someone to do it.
That’s where you come in. You can offer your services for free or at a lesser charge. Take it one step further and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, where you can really make a difference in others’ lives. At 95 years old, former President Jimmy Carter was still wielding a hammer and building houses with this life-changing organization!
Bird Watching. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are 45 million bird watchers in America. If you’re one of them, why not help others experience the benefits of nature? Bird watching is an activity anyone can participate in, even those who may be using a wheelchair or confined to a bed.
Host a Bird Watching 101 workshop to share your enthusiasm for our feathered friends with people in a community center or medical facility. If you’re tech-savvy or know someone who could help, why not start an online blog and share your photos and musings on the birds you find? “Being around nature—and specifically walking in nature—can create significant changes in your mood and even buffer clinical depression,” Klich says.
Ham Radio. For some, ham (or amateur) radio isn’t just a hobby, it’s a life-saver. Since ham radio doesn’t rely on the internet or a phone network, it can be a lifeline during natural disasters by keeping the lines of communication open for public service officials or emergency workers.
In fact, amateur radio allowed New York City agencies to stay in touch with each other after their command center was destroyed during the 9/11 attacks Ham radio also came through during Hurricane Katrina, after other communication methods failed. Many retirement communities even employ ham radio to communicate with their residents.
If you’re a licensed radio operator, talk to your local administrators to see if you can set up shop in your community. If you aren’t licensed but always wanted to be, a national association for amateur radio, the ARRL offers classes. After that, you can connect with other operators, and even set up a show or messaging system about a particular topic or cause.
Pets. Walk into a medical or nursing home facility or children’s hospital today and chances are you’ll see a few four-legged friends in the halls. Pet therapy has become a beneficial part of hospital stays. Contact with animals has been shown to improve cognitive functions in the elderly and help alleviate depression and feelings of loneliness for people of all ages.
“Any kind of connection with others whether human or animal feels good,” Klich explains. “Close communication, togetherness and touch can trigger oxytocin, a hormone known for its role in social bonding. Oxytocin, which has been called the ‘love hormone,’ helps us feel safe, loved and connected in the world.”
Do you have a dog who just loves people? Why not get him or her certified as an official therapy animal? For example, the American Kennel Club offers a therapy dog program that will allow you to take your favorite pet into facilities — and touch the lives of those going through tough times.
If you’re looking to start a new business venture, consider starting a pet-sitting or dog-walking business. It’s a win-win for you and your customers!
Singing Lessons and Listening to Live Music. Did you know that singing decreases the level of cortisol, a stress marker, in your brain? A BioPsychoSocial Med study suggests that singing may have physical and mental benefits to older people. You can use your love of music to make connections with your community. By joining a choir or orchestra, or even starting a one at your local senior center you can meet people with like interests. You may even consider partnering with a preschool to give music classes to toddlers. If singing isn't your thing, but you enjoy music, there are countless opportunities to enjoy live music. Looking into a local school's concert (they are usually free) or live music at local restaurants is a great start.
Try on a new hobby for size today
No matter what your passion is, there are so many ways to use your hobby to help others. Maybe there’s an activity you always wanted to try, but just never seemed to have the time. It’s definitely not too late! Klich recommends that the hobbies you take on should be complementary to your personality, so they provide balance and restoration. “People who’ve always been on the go or type A, for example, may find that knitting or doing something with their hands like coloring or learning to knit can be settling,” she says.
By introducing new hobbies or even trying new physical activities that go beyond your comfort zone, seniors can bypass their default networks of thinking and doing, Pizzaro says. “This literally creates new positive neural networks in their brain, fueling positive thoughts and actions,” she explains. “These positive thoughts and actions, despite former conditioning, can become their new normal.”