As people age, nutrition and physical activity are even more important to their overall health. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is playing an important role in providing senior nutrition education and wellness outreach to help older Americans stay active and independent.

A group of older Americans or seniors enjoy the outdoors with smiles on their faces
More than 12% of the current Texas population is comprised of people 65 and older. (Stock photo)

More than 12% of the population in Texas is older than 65, and that number is expected to surpass 20% by 2050.

Andy Crocker, AgriLife Extension gerontology specialist in the Family and Community Health unit who is based in Amarillo, said the theme of this year’s Older Americans Month in May is “Age My Way,” and the agency has ways to help seniors do just that.

“The Age My Way theme refers to seniors aging in a way that allows them to remain involved in their communities and maintain their independence,” Crocker said. 

As people age, they tend to lose friends, family and social connections, he said.

“These affect a person’s ability or desire to get out into public and do those things that once brought them joy,” he said. “Also, to varying degrees, the result is they tend to lose much of the independence and autonomy they used to enjoy.”

It is important that older Americans age in a way that reflects their personal needs and interests, Crocker said.  

Better living for senior Texans

Nutrition is a vital part of healthy living, and good eating habits are important at any age,  according to Jenna Anding, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension nutrition specialist in the Department of Nutrition of the Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station.

“Protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and dietary fiber are just some of the nutrients that are important as we age,” Anding, who is also principal investigator for the Better Living for Texans SNAP-Ed program, said. 

Many AgriLife Extension programs are designed in a manner that will resonate with a senior audience, she said.

“That includes staying active, being socially engaged and eating healthy to help maintain independence.”

A senior woman with gray hair and green shirt is cutting tomatoes
The Better Living for Texans program helps seniors make healthy food choices as well as improve their food safety and security. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo)

Anding said AgriLife Extension’s Better Living for Texans, BLT, program offers a variety of research-based, nutrition education programs to Texans in more than 210 of the state’s counties. Established in 1994, BLT is a cooperative effort of AgriLife Extension, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“The BLT program helps people learn how to make healthy food choices, prepare and store food safely, become more physically active and improve food security,” Anding said.

She said an important part of BLT programming is the “Be Well, Live Well” program designed specifically for older adults. Be Well, Live Well is a five-session series focused on improving the diets and physical activity habits of adults 50 years of age and older.

Danielle Krueger, AgriLife Extension program specialist in the Department of Nutrition, noted the importance of nutrition in chronic disease management.

“Many seniors may also have chronic diseases that can impact their quality of life and food choices,” Krueger said. “Especially when looking at chronic diseases including hypertension and diabetes that are related to the foods we choose.”

She said AgriLife Extension offers various classes for both hypertension and diabetes, which will help seniors learn what foods are important for managing their health. That agency also offers a low-cost diabetes management online course for those Texans, regardless of age, who need objective, research-based information and advice on managing their diabetes.

“This seven-part course covers the basics of self-care and learning how to incorporate healthful foods into your everyday meals,” Krueger said. “Through this course, you can learn how to manage diabetes in a way that will make your everyday decisions much easier.”

Walk Across Texas!  

 The AgriLife Extension Walk Across Texas! program is another way in which seniors can age their own way by promoting their physical activity, reducing their risk of chronic disease and participating in a community activity that promotes socializing.

A group of older Americans or seniors, Walk Across Texas! participants, all dressed in white t-shirts and sitting at tables.
Walk Across Texas! team participants at a senior center in San Antonio. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo)

Walk Across Texas! is an eight-week community program delivered through a web-based platform to help people of various ages and abilities establish the habit of regular physical activity. It challenges teams to track and log mileage to virtually walk across the state of Texas — a distance of about 832 miles.

A study published in BMC Public Health, confirmed the effectiveness of the Walk Across Texas! program to increase and maintain physical activity over eight weeks, even among inactive or low-active participants.

“The program gives participants the freedom to be active at their own pace, without setting unrealistic expectations,” said Mark Faries, Ph.D., associate professor in Agrilife Extension’s  Family and Community Health unit and principal investigator for the study. “It’s a great way for seniors to get back into the practice of getting some physical activity and to do so at their own pace and with the company and encouragement of others.”

Mindfulness for seniors

Miquela Smith, AgriLife Extension program specialist – health, Lubbock, said cultivating mindfulness is also important for seniors.

“Our mental, emotional and physical health suffers when we lose connection with others and with ourselves,” she said. “Mindfulness—that is paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally to the present moment—can anchor us and provide enjoyment of the small details of our everyday lives.

Smith said developing a well-balanced life is vital for personal wellness, but can differ depending on environment, culture, circumstance, resources and other factors.

Older woman leaned back, eyes closed, arms reaching back and hands behind the head, relaxing
Older Americans can also benefit from mindfulness practices. (Stock photo)

“Balance means doing the best we can to be cognizant of the different dimensions of our lives,” she said. “This includes work, recreation, interacting with family and friends, community engagement, being physically and spiritually active, and rest. But this balance will vary with a person’s needs, wants, expectations, preferences and capabilities and will need to be adjusted from time to time over the course of our lives.”

Smith said some specific ways seniors can achieve a better balance in their lives is to increase their social connections and engage in hobbies or activities they enjoy.

“Older adults may be more solitary or homebound,” she said. “Those who can’t get out as much should try to stay in touch with friends and family by phone — or internet if they’re more tech savvy. It’s also important they have and maintain hobbies or interests that occupy and suit them as individuals.”

Smith said those seniors who are more active can benefit from outdoor activities such as taking a walk or engaging with others through hobbies or civic engagement.

“For many people, their occupation is a key part of their identity, and they must figure out how to fill that void when they retire,” she said. “Engaging in an activity you enjoy or getting involved in a volunteer effort to help others can be very rewarding. Of course, it’s best you choose an activity or community service effort that aligns with your interests, talents and skills.”       

Smith said AgriLife Extension offers mindfulness programs in parts of the state through its statewide network of agents.

“We offer a Stress Less with Mindfulness program for adults,” she said. “We also have a ‘Would You Like to Be Happier?’ mindfulness newsletter that supports mindfulness practices.”

Other agency programs supporting seniors

AgriLife Extension offers additional programming to directly or indirectly support senior Texans, including:

  • Eldercare Conferences — Sponsoring and/or actively participating in eldercare conferences throughout the state, learning new information and skills related to eldercare. 
  • Relative Caregiving — AgriLife Extension, in partnership with multiple agencies throughout Texas, provides education and support to grandparents rearing their grandchildren and other relative caregivers.
  • Powerful Tools for Caregivers — AgriLife Extension provides this evidence-based educational intervention to caregivers of persons with chronic health conditions, persons with special needs and service members or veterans.
  • Fall Risk Reduction — AgriLife Extension offers additional fall risk reduction education, highlighting effective ways to make modifications to the home environment to reduce the risk of falling.
  • Paul is a communications and media relations specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Communications. Based in San Antonio, Paul is responsible for writing advances, news releases and feature stories for Texas A&M AgriLife agencies, as well as providing any media relations support needed.