Increasingly over the last century we have seen the ageing population of Australia treble in size (Hugo, 2002) while family and social networks have decreased. This is in part due to a continuous decline in birth rates, marriages and increased globalisation of the family structure (McCalman, 2002). Along with this continuous decrease in family networks and globalisation of family we have seen an increase in older people living alone (McCalman, 2002). This is often viewed as a time of loneliness and despair when a persons experiences little or no life satisfaction within their existence (McCalman, 2002), but in reality this time can be one of successful ageing and increased personal health and wellbeing, social interaction and support with the integration of more positive leisure experiences.
Successful ageing is more than the “absence of disease and maintenance of high functioning” (Everard et al, 2000, s208), it involves the ability to be engaged in life and includes activities and social support. Leisure offers many opportunities for inclusive recreational programs which can enhance the quality of life for the individual (Moulder, 2003) and also improve their personal interaction amongst their peers. Peer interactions provide a variety of benefits such as improving self esteem, increasing acceptance of one self and others and help to developing a sense of autonomy. It also assists in maintaining or improving personal wellbeing (Northern Arizona University, 1998) and minimises social isolation. Social support and close relationships can act as a buffer to the effects of stressful life events such as bereavement caused by the loss of a spouse, increasing poor health or perpetual losses such as vision or hearing. These can have devastating effects that may spiral out of control leading to depression, despair, loneliness or social isolation, if positive steps to mitigate such feelings and emotions are not undertaken (Rentoul, 1997).
Through increased participation in leisure activities, the individual can develop and maintain positive coping mechanisms that can provide flexibility and emotional stability (Bromley, 1990, as cited by Rentoul, 1997). This allows the individual to be in control in the event of such instances as a decline in personal independence, or social standing (due to changes in working relationships) or a loss of cognitive functioning. For example, the loss of ones own self image through the process of retirement can create disorientation for the individual leading to such things as lower self esteem and depression over ones lost status as one struggles to come to terms with their personal situation and reorientates themselves within the world. The use of leisure can bring new meaning and social acceptance for the individual as they struggle to adjust and resolve their constraints associated with their new position within society. This then provides opportunity for the individual to better cope with such occurrences, therefore minimising opportunity for the individual to develop symptoms that are associated with ill mental health. Social withdrawal of the individual from society and their peers is associated with problems in cognitive development and mental health problems therefore inclusive leisure experiences and social interaction helps to eliminate social isolation while enhancing support, intimacy and comfort (Rentoul, 1997). According to leisure research, leisure participation and productive activities undertaken by the individual within a social setting can provide health enhancing benefits such as lower morbidity rates, improved subjective health, and enhanced survival for the individual (Lennartsson & Silverstein, 2001) as well as provide a sense of accomplishment, empowerment, social integration and emotional support.
Leisure activities that are low demand have been found to be associated with better mental health (Everard et al, 2000) in elderly people and are an important aspect related to the maintenance of successful ageing. Engaging in activities that provide humourous interactions provides positive psychological benefits (Szabo, 2003) such as mood enhancement and reduced levels of anxiety. Alternative therapies such as reflexology, yoga, mediation and massage are shown to help lessen or eliminate symptoms people often experience and associate with depression (Choicemedia, 2003). Many studies have shown that Hatta Yoga significantly reduces the symptoms of depression and anxiety (Weintraub, 2003), this is achieved through the use of certain postures for the body. These help to improve an individuals mood by “moving energy through places in the body where feelings of grief or anger are stored” (Weintraub, 2003) and help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety that are closely related with ill mental health.
Leisure participation in activities such as Tai Chi can provide a wide range of health benefits to the muscular, circulatory and skeletal systems. Evidence also shows that the graceful and flowing movements of Tai Chi can reduces stress and provide a way to cultivate body, mind and spirit (International Taoist Tai Chi Society, 2003a). Tai Chi can also be effective in minimising a wide range of health problems. These include poor circulation, tension headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, (International Taoist Tai Chi Society, 2003a), high blood pressure, back problems (ronperfetti.com, n.d), breathing difficulties as well as digestive and nervous disorders. Tai Chi helps to increase the stretching abilities of the human body and increases its flexibility through the use of its stretching and flowing movements, thus, improving individual health. With increased use of such leisure activities one can establish profound effects on all of the various systems, organs and tissues within the body by reducing built up tension, improving the body’s circulatory system, and increasing strength and flexibility which can benefit the body’s entire physiology (International Taoist Tai Chi Society 2003b) leading to a state of homeostasis. When the human body is in a state of homeostasis positive mental health is also maintained. Tai Chi places a major emphasis on gentleness and relaxation as well as on balance of both the physical body and the mind. Therefore it can be very beneficial for older people as it helps to maintain and restore balance, while also providing opportunity for the person to gain self esteem, realise self actualisation and enjoy social relations (ronperfetti.com, n.d).
Therefore through the inclusion of leisure within an individual’s daily life anyone can experience a variety of benefits to the mind, body and spirit. It is irrelevant what their age is, what personal attributes or abilities they have or what their choice of leisure activity may be. Both active leisure and low demand leisure provide opportunities for increased personal health and wellbeing, support intimacy and comfort as well as empowerment, self actualisation and improved self perception, all of which work together to create a healthier mind, body and leisure experience.
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