BOSTON -- Women, now living longer lives than ever, must learn to plan ahead to make those extra years as vital and healthy as possible. That is the message Jane Porcino, author and activist, hopes to bring to women of all ages.
"Good health is not a matter of luck," she told a recent conference titled "Living Longer, Living Better" at Brandeis University. "We have to work at it.
"Women are no longer defined by the first 40 years of their lives," she said. "We have been given a second half of life. All women want good health, but we don't know how to achieve lifelong wellness."
Some women, perhaps contemplating job or lifestyle changes, came to the conference, which focused on women, aging and health, to find solutions for personal problems. However, most came as representatives of human-services agencies struggling to maintain levels of service to clients despite federal and state cutbacks.
The name of the conference is also the title of Porcino's new book, which explores options in community housing for those in the second half of life. Porcino, a gerontologist, now 68, went back to college after raising seven children, earned a doctorate and taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She now teaches at New York University.
Diana Laskin Siegel, the association's director of education, suggested that the energy and concerns of conference participants show that women are actively seeking ways to make the changes needed to help themselves and others as they lead longer lives.
Some of the problems women encounter as they age were detailed in workshops on urinary incontinence, medication misuse, osteoporosis, breast cancer and mental-health is sues. Workshops also focused on breaking down the stereotypes of aging, older women and violence, and food and advocacy.
The conference marked the first time three older women who have written important recent books on survival were in the same room. Porcino, whose new book deals with creative housing arrangements for people who do not want to live in nursing homes or retirement communities, was keynote speaker. Siegel is co-author of "Ourselves Growing Older," a health and living handbook for women in midlife and older.
Ruth Harriet Jacobs, a sociologist and author of "Be an Outrageous Older Woman -- a RASP (Remarkable Aging Smart Person)," taught the first course in gerontology Porcino ever took at a Boston University Summer Institute and came to the conference to hear her former student.
Overseeing the program was Barbara Brilliant, who was television host and producer of a program for older people until recent cutbacks caused the show's cancellation.
"It was exciting to see so many bright and articulate women gathered together to do the kind of advocacy needed to make changes for better health and housing," Brilliant said. "It was important for the younger women there to watch older women taking the lead."
In her keynote speech on "How a Woman Ages: What To Expect and What To Do About It?," Porcino described her personal experience with menopause.
"Women have always had the ability to change and adapt to change," she said. "But my friends and I never talked about menopause. For me, it resulted in increasing depression. There was no one to turn to for help. Today, women talk about menopause, and that is good."
Porcino also directs the "National Action Forum for Midlife and Older Women," publishers of a newsletter called "Hot Flash." The newsletter urges women to take a political stand on issues affecting health, such as breast cancer, which now strikes one in nine American women.
Urging women to obtain as much information as possible before involving themselves in estrogen treatments, Porcino said, "There have been reports that estrogen cuts health risks. There have also been reports that estrogen may increase the risk of endometrial and breast cancer. My belief is that the evidence is not yet in."
In addition to joining support groups, Porcino recommended low-fat, high-fiber diets, cutting down on dairy products, sugar and salt, and adopting a regular exercise program.
"Exercise is the closest thing there is to a healthy aging pill," she said. "There is no evidence that exercise extends life, but it does improve it."
Paperback copies of "Living Longer, Living Better" are available for $15.95 plus $2.50 postage from Crossroad/ Continuum in New York City, 1-800-638-3030. "Ourselves, Growing Older" (Simon & Schuster Inc.) is at major bookstores and public libraries. Copies of "Be An Outrageous Older Woman" are also available in bookstores and libraries, or from KIT publishers, Manchester, Conn. (203) 643-7831, Ext. 175, for $14.95 plus $2.50 postage.