Despite the country’s aging population, most Canadians hope to live a long and healthy life. In 2019, it was reported that there were 6.6 million Canadian seniors (65+ years old). By 2040, that percentage is projected to increase to one-fourth of the overall population. This increase will cause the number of Canadians over 65 who will suffer from chronic illness to climb as well.
Chronic illness can occur at any age, however, it tends to affect a large percentage of seniors and significantly impacts daily life and overall quality of living. Chronic illness is often caused by genetics, lifestyle or a combination of both. And while the aging process is inevitable, early intervention, preventative measures and opportunities to stay engaged can help older people maintain good physical and mental health.
A Government of Canada document entitled Aging and chronic disease: A Profile of Canadian Seniors includes comments by the country’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. She says, “Four chronic diseases, namely cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases account for over 60 per cent of all deaths in Canada. The onset of these diseases can be delayed or mitigated through changes in behavioural risk factors as well as broader determinants of health.”
Tam goes on to discuss the effects COVID-19 has had on our aging population. “COVID-19 has had unprecedented consequences and has quickly revealed seniors’ vulnerability to infectious diseases. The Canadian Chronic Disease Surveillance System estimates that in 2021, the overall number of adults aged 65 years and older who will be living with chronic conditions will be about 6.3 million.”
Dr. Zahra Goodarzi, an internal medicine doctor and assistant professor in the division of geriatrics at the University of Calgary specializes in the care of older adults across a broad range of issues. She works with a collaborative research team looking at issues that affect quality of life for older adults. Goodarzi reiterates that chronic illness can appear in any age but that seniors tend to accrue more illnesses and multiple co-morbidities.
Data from Statistics Canada from 2011/2012 shows that in adults over 40 years old, 26.5 per cent have two or more conditions while closer to 66.3 per cent over 85 years old have two or more chronic conditions. The data also reveals that most people over 65 years old will have at least one chronic condition.
“The key thing is chronic conditions can occur at any age and depend on many factors including family history, genetics, exposures, lifestyle, etc. As we age, we are more likely to have multiple conditions together. What is challenging about this is often these multiple conditions can affect each other, in a way, layering on top of each other to potentially cause more challenging symptoms, disability or frailty,” says Goodarzi.
The Government of Canada lists the top five most common types of chronic illness in seniors as high blood pressure, gum disease, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes followed by osteoporosis, cancer, COPD, asthma and mood/anxiety disorders. Goodarzi highlights that while most people are aware of high blood pressure and heart disease issues, they underestimate the challenges associated with gum disease, osteoporosis and mood conditions, all of which can affect one’s quality of life.
When it comes to chronic illness in seniors, it is possible to effectively manage many of the symptoms. Identifying what lifestyle changes can be made to prevent symptoms due to chronic illness from getting worse is key. Getting enough daily exercise, eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption and becoming more socially active are all ways that can help minimize the symptoms of a chronic illness or condition.
In addition to effective management, taking a preventative approach before a chronic illness develops is always recommended. Goodarzi recommends discussing new medications, supplements and natural products with a doctor who can also suggest appropriate screening for conditions like bone disease and cancer.
Living with a chronic illness is manageable for some and less manageable for others. While many seniors are able to live independently, others require extra support through assisted living facilities, many of which promote and offer opportunities to engage in a healthier lifestyle. This support and sense of community can help provide relief, both physically and mentally, to those suffering from chronic illness.
Amica Senior Lifestyles offers a range of services to best suit the needs of all seniors, from independent living to assisted living and memory care. While some seniors have no health concerns and choose Amica for its wide range of amenities and programming, others need a higher level of care due to chronic illnesses, including cognitive aging, arthritis, diabetes and cancer.
Life enrichment coordinator for Amica Britannia (Calgary) Lindsay Kulyk explains that residents range in age from 75 to 100+ years old. In her role, Kulyk focuses on programming that supports both physical and mental health. “Whether or not they have a chronic illness, it is still important for seniors to engage in activities that stimulate their body and mind,” she says.
“We center our programming around the seven dimensions of wellness: Physical, Social, Intellectual, Spiritual, Emotional, Vocational and Environmental. Three themes that stand out for our residents are:
- Fitness and functional movement
- Enriching the mind
- Lifelong leisure
At Amica, one main goal is to empower seniors to stay active. This is achieved through a range of activities from cardiovascular fitness to yoga and meditation. Exercise programs are adapted to suit individuals based on their mobility and cognitive wellness. Seniors can participate in gentle fitness and strength classes either seated or standing.
Kulyk says that the connection between the body and mind is key, which is why Amica has implemented brain health programs across its residences, including mindful breathing, Trivial Pursuit and crossword tournaments, and lecture series. Often, these activities are resident-led.
Goodarzi also promotes the importance of maintaining physical and mental wellness to address chronic illness. “Mental health is a part of all aging, whether you have a chronic condition or not. Exploring mindfulness, coping strategies and exercise are key.”
Socializing is a crucial component in one’s overall health and wellbeing, explains Kulyk. “At Amica, one of the many collaborative experiences offered to residents is its baking program, which is led by me, and its cooking program, which is led by our chef. Anytime we cook or bake together, we not only nourish our body with healthy food, but we nourish our minds with the time spent connecting with one another.”
One of Kulyk’s primary goals is to help residents enjoy this stage of their life as much, if not more, than their previous life stages. “They have come so far and have incredible journeys and stories to celebrate. I have never thought of being old as a negative, and I always remind our residents that this is a time to enjoy every moment in life – just because they are aging doesn’t mean life can’t be vibrant and fulfilling. We support residents to continue with leisure pursuits they may have enjoyed in the past before moving here, or allowing them to lead, coordinate or plan programs that are meaningful to them.”
Goodarzi reminds that regular check-ups with a family doctor is critical in preventing and detecting chronic illnesses early. “Seniors aged 65 years or older can also connect with a Care of the Elderly doctor who has extra training in older adult care and may provide primary care in clinics or care facilities, among other places.”