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Alice Lee, 65, (right), a volunteer at Agency for Volunteer Service, teaches a tai chi class at Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service in Jordan. Kowloon. Volunteering and positive thoughts keep the retired Hong Kong police officer feeling youthful, she says. Photo: SCMP/Jonathan Wong

How to age well: positive thoughts, volunteering help a retired police officer find purpose and stay active

  • Staying active and being hopeful about ageing are important, keeping you feeling youthful as you get older, studies have shown
  • Alice Lee acquired qualifications as a tour leader, tai chi coach, deaf-blind communicator and a laughing yoga ambassador to continue to serve her community

Alice Lee Wai-sum could be taking it easy during her retirement, but, at the age of 65, the former Hong Kong police officer and prosecutor prefers to keep busy.

Since retiring in 2007, she has been working full-time as a volunteer for several charitable groups – and has made time to pick up new skills and qualifications.

As she gets older, staying active, curious and engaged keeps her feeling youthful and hopeful about her future.

“I retired early because I wanted to spend my later years doing what I liked,” says Lee, who is single and lives alone. “But, before I retired, I decided to learn new skills that I could use later on.”

Lee in her younger days as a police officer. Photo: Alice Lee Wai-sum
She earned an outbound tour leader licence and obtained qualifications to be a tai chi coach, a deaf-blind communicator and a laughing yoga ambassador.
After retiring, Lee joined the Agency for Volunteer Service as a Hong Kong Community Volunteer team member. This opened the door to helping the elderly, disabled, students, people with dementia, and the deaf and blind.

Why volunteering is so good for your well-being

Volunteering gives her life purpose and makes her feel good, and she says, “it has broadened my horizons”.

Lee worries about falling into poor health when she’s older and having to rely on others for help, but, for the most part, she feels positive and optimistic about life ahead.

“I’m health-conscious so I make sure I do all the right things to prevent illness,” she shares. “I also still have a lot to give and want to continue learning and helping others through my volunteer work.

“Knowing that I’m making a difference to my community gives me a sense of fulfilment and purpose. I’m determined to continue being healthy, active and productive, even when I’m much older.”

Chan Kin Ming is a Singapore-based geriatrician from Chan KM Geriatric & Medical Clinic. Photo: Chan Kin Ming

According to Singapore-based geriatrician Dr Chan Kin Ming from Chan KM Geriatric & Medical Clinic, having a positive and hopeful attitude towards ageing helps us feel confident and at peace. It reduces anxiety, which lowers our risk of cardiovascular disease and helps us sleep better – improving our mood and energy levels.

Researchers at Oregon State University in the United States recently found that if you can envision becoming the healthy, engaged person you want to be in old age, then you’re much more likely to experience that outcome.

Their study, published in December 2020 in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, revealed that middle-aged people who were optimistic and who described their future selves as being healthy and active or having a strong network of friends tended to have more positive self-perceptions of ageing.

Karen Hooker is the co-author of a study published in December 2020 in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development. Photo: Oregon State University

The research suggests that these self-perceptions of ageing are likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interestingly, these people also feared becoming the stereotypical cranky, angry or chronically sick old men or women who were constantly in pain or dependent on others for their day-to-day needs.

According to study co-author Karen Hooker, it’s important to realise that some of the negative health consequences in old age might not be biologically driven and that the mind and the body are interconnected.

Why your biological age may hold the key to reversing ageing

“If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people’s willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviours that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be,” Hooker wrote.

But many of us do fear getting old, Chan says. “We tend to associate this stage of life with illness, pain, disability and a lack of financial resources. Plus, we may find it hard to accept that we don’t have very many years left to live.

“If you’re retired, you may also experience a loss of self-worth, purpose and socialisation opportunities. You may feel depressed and even more hopeless about your future.”

Lee teaches a tai chi class to students at Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service in Jordan. Photo: Jonathan Wong
One way to change your mindset about ageing is to consider the positives of old age, Chan adds.
“You’ll finally have time and money to do what you’ve always wanted. You’ll be able to rest if you wish or focus on your health by doing things like meditation, exercising, playing sports with friends, and so on.
“As a senior, you may also enjoy discounted rates at the supermarket or when taking public transport. If you have grandchildren, you have more time to spend with them. Getting older is really a privilege.”
Since retiring in 2007, Lee has been working full-time as a volunteer for several charity groups. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Another way to feel hopeful about ageing is to prepare for this stage of your life, physically, emotionally and financially. Chan says it’ll give you a sense of control and put you in good stead to handle whatever challenges you may face down the road.

A German study, published in May 2021 in the journal Psychology and Aging, revealed that it might help to “feel younger”, too. The researchers found that middle-aged and older adults who feel younger than their chronological age tend to be better protected from the damaging effects of stress and experience better health.

Chan says that we can feel younger by keeping ourselves healthy with a wholesome diet and regular exercise; having a varied routine; socialising with like-minded people and younger people; rediscovering love with our spouse or, if widowed, starting a relationship with a new partner; finding inspiration in people who achieved success at an old age, and; reminiscing about our past.

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Lee would add “having a sense of purpose” to the list.

“Whatever your age, you still have value and something to give. In my case, it’s serving others,” she says. “As a court prosecutor, I upheld law and order and justice, and as a police officer I served with honour and loyalty, so contributing to society is second nature to me.

“But helping people doesn’t just make me feel useful; it also makes me more hopeful about the rest of my days because I know they’ll continue to be meaningful and rewarding.”

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