Sunday, October 21, 2012

Aging Involves Increased Time on Self-Care

Photo by Helga Weber
I have a tween girl who spends a lot of time preening in front of the mirror. I start to roll my eyes while formulating a comment about how she's plowing too much time into self-care.

But then I stop short. At 50, I am also spending a lot more time taking care of my body. This is annoying, bordering on enraging.

I can't believe all the time I spend striving for the energy and appearance I took for granted in my 20s and 30s.  I'm spending more time each day preparing healthy meals, exercising, and primping in front of the mirror.

Argh! I didn't expect to spend this much time on self-care until I hit my 70s or 80s.  If this is how I prepare for my day, how much time do I have left over for "achievement"?  

How old will I be when the majority of my waking hours are spent but just taking care of my physical needs?

I suppose if I spent more than 4 hours a day on self-care, it's become a part time job. And I might be there now.  What does this mean for my future?  If I end up spending 8 hours a day on self-care, I'm either in the entertainment business or I'm a nursing home resident. And I'm no movie star, so I worry.  How does my time use stack up against the norm? 

study by Horgas, Wilms and Baltes (1998) describes the use of time by about 500 older adults ranging in age from 70 to 105.  One of my professors showed us this research in an effort to teach us empathy for those with aging bodies. It worked; we were shocked. The findings as presented on page 136 of Worral & Hickson's textbook (2003) show the amount of time on self-care is enormous.

By subtracting 8 hours a day for sleep, the data displayed show that older adults spent an average of 8.5 hours a day on self-care: 2.5 hours on personal care, 3.0 hours on instrumental activities of daily living (errands, bill paying and such), and 3.0 hours a day resting between tasks.

Here are the results of my research on time spent on self-care in middle age:
I did find a thesis on the topic of time spent on grooming for women, particularly working women.  However, I am having three problems locating more of this data: 1) inconsistent category labels 2) focus on the upper limits of the life span and 3) focus on those living in formal settings such as nursing homes.
Let me elaborate.  The category descriptions are not consistent across studies. For example, exercise is sometimes grouped with recreation and a night's sleep is sometimes grouped into self-care. Sometimes not. Or the emphasis on time use is more on describing paid work vs. leisure time rather than identifying all the self-care done outside of work, which many would not describe as "leisure" per se.
If the focus shifts to the increased time needs related to aging, the participants are almost always on the extreme end of age.  More research exists for those 65 plus or even 85 plus than for those in their 40s and 50s adjusting to slowly changing bodies. For example, this study using the American Time Use Survey compares survey data for those 75 plus with those 25 to 44, ignoring data for the middle aged.

Also, the research focuses more on those who receiving help from caregivers.  Residents of nursing homes tend to be more often research participants than community dwelling seniors because they are already under the gaze of professionals who document their activities.  Or the statistics are focused more on how much time caregivers are sacrificing to help very frail relatives as does this report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

My conclusion? There is scant research on how midlife people spend time on self-care.
So in the absence of hard data, let me return briefly to the emotional impact of these changes.  I am now a lot greedier in how I spend my time. Now that I can see "the end game" in the decades ahead of me, I am feeling a time crunch in the amount of energy I have each, individual day.  This invites me to reflect on my priorities and adjust.

A 2010 study by Parisi shows that older adults calculate these trade offs in order to decide how to spend their waning energy--be it physical, cognitive or social.  Perhaps the time crunch of aging serves as the midwife to age-related wisdom.

Or as I am fond of saying, "Wisdom is born out of fatigue--not maturity."

So I am not alone in this identity crisis formed by more time in the bathroom, the kitchen and the gym. I've got to trim hours out of my daily schedule in order to make time for self-care. It's time to cut out all the fluff: toxic people who suck away my time, time-wasting habits, self-destructive behaviors, and so on.  No more baggage--mine or others'.

It's time to transform into a lean, mean, achieving machine as I run my slightly wonky body towards the setting sun.  Ready, set, GO!  But first give me an hour to eat, stretch and dress.


Coping with Illness
Outrunning Father Time and the Grim Reaper for those 50+
The Senior Discount: A Matter of Fashion


  1. Yes, at 65.5 I have been forced to notice the same thing! Nice to hear I'm not the only one...

  2. My point exactly in my Stylish Ole Woman posts! I'm so glad you wrote about this because I started that blog bc I was shocked at how few people actually talked about this, and instead acted as if caring for themselves was pretty much the same as always.

    I will be linking to your post when I write my own version of this topic. Thank you for another insightful, authentic post with a tone that makes it go down easy!