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Expertise on Aging Hits Close to Home

Keeping old folks young kept John Rude active and motivated for more than 30 years.

As founder of a Eugene consulting firm committed to “changing the perceptions of aging in America,” Rude found himself in1981 at the forefront of a movement born on a wave of retirees not ready for rocking chairs. Thirty years later, it is a movement still in its formative years.

“The youth focus in Western culture makes older people invisible,” Rude acknowledges. “Older adults, often, get cut off at retirement. Think of the knowledge of a lifetime that is lost. How can we use that effectively in our culture?”

The question is personal as well as professional for Rude. At age 71, he finds himself facing many of the challenges encountered by the more than 30,000 older adults he worked with before he sold Age Dynamics Inc. and began to shape a retirement lifestyle of his own.

So how does a man with 30 years of experience and expertise in aging deal with his own advancing years? Turns out that while knowledge has prepared him in many ways for retirement, it has also left room for surprises.

Formula for Healthy Aging: Exercise, Experience, Expeditions

I became aware of Rude’s work in the early 1990s when he established a landmark senior fitness program at the Downtown Athletic Club where I was a member—young enough at that time to maintain a cautious distance from the E Cubed curriculum that introduced Exercise, Experience and Expeditions to encourage physical wellbeing as well as social and intellectual enrichment for senior members. The focus that Rude introduced continues to influence class offerings at the athletic club and in retirement communities across the United States.

The innovative Eugene program drew national attention and launched Rude’s career as an authority on healthy aging. When I heard he had sold his business, I wondered how his cognitive understanding of aging was meshing with his personal experience of the process.

“I am semi-retired,’ Rude emphasizes, when asked about his adjustment to life without Age Dynamics.

For three years after the sale of his firm, he smoothed the transition by working with new owners. When that contract ended last year, he established a half-day schedule in an office outside his home where he continues to write and consult on issues of aging.

“One thing I am aware of is there is a high incidence of disease and death for males in the first year of retirement,” he explains. “Males tend to wrap their ego around their work. If they don’t have something meaningful to do, they go downhill rapidly.”

The pattern is different for women. “Women have broader skills. They are more adaptable and socially connected,” he says. “Because I am aware of the statistics for men, I think it’s vital for me to have a retirement strategy well thought out. I want to travel more, but I also want to work. I still want to have involvement that is meaningful and purposeful.”

Rude’s retirement strategy is guided by knowledge. It is grounded in research that affirms the importance of seven dimensions of wellness: physical, social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, occupational, and environmental.

“In western culture we put more value on the physical component of wellness than on other aspects of health.” he says. “When people don’t have functional wellness--physical wellness--we find that other components of wellness tend to decline also. When they do have physical wellness, other aspects of health tend to thrive.”

Make Moves that keep

Mind and Body Flexible

It makes sense. When physical movement brings pain or instability, we’re likely to socialize less. Activity declines. Vocational options narrow. Emotions slump. But don’t assume that physical frailty is an inevitable, irrevocable aspect of age. We’re more flexible than we sometimes think.

In his work with seniors in 40 states, Rude has seen striking evidence that even the elderly can achieve significant, health-changing improvements in balance, strength and endurance.

“When older adults see that in 12 weeks they can increase lower-body strength 40-60 percent, and balance 100 percent, they get pretty excited,” he says. “Our bodies and minds are very similar. If we challenge them, we get positive results.”

Until the early 1980s, most seniors, and most researchers, assumed that life was all downhill after 65—an inevitable process of decline, disease, degeneration and death. Then, researchers at the California State University Fullerton released a seminal report showing that older adults could make significant, positive changes in strength, balance, and agility.

The Fullerton findings established measurable standards for senior fitness that have been changing attitudes and activities for older adults ever since, bringing specialized fitness programs to retirement communities and recreation centers across the country.

These days, Rude brings the message home every time he goes for a bike ride, gets a cardio workout at the gym, or heads to the ski slopes. Regular physical exercise provides the base for a healthy, rounded lifestyle that includes a Mediterranean diet heavy on leafy greens and light on sugar or processed foods. Seven or eight hours of sleep are a nightly goal.

To sustain a lively intellectual and vocational focus in retirement, Rude is making thoughtful choices regarding volunteer involvement. A major focus these days is the Cornerstone Community Housing project, which provides affordable housing options for low-income Lane County residents.

“When you put someone in a home with some comfort and security, that’s how people have a chance to get out of the homeless situation, a chance to create more stability in their lives,” he says.

Rude’s enthusiasm and expertise in developing wellness programing for retirement communities is now being directed toward fitness, social, and educational opportunities for Cornerstone residents.

Social contact is also a key component of his retirement strategy. For 24 years, Rude and his wife, Christine Sullivan, have participated in a weekly gathering of friends that began as a group of six couples who discussed books and shared support.

In recent years the group has weathered changes including the death of a husband. Following that loss, a member of Rude’s family died of colon cancer giving him another close encounter with death. In the process, he has discovered that growth can come through grief. Along with loss comes a deeper connection with those who remain.

“That is an unexpected aspect of aging,” he says. “Through these difficult times, growth happens. It’s another chapter in life we all are facing and we are learning from it.”

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer

and author of The Spirited Walker . Contact at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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