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Senior Health

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The stereotypes give misleading impression that “the golden years” are a time of aches and pains and worse. But, in many ways, the stereotypes are stale, dated and being proven wrong.

Stats show that Canadians are living longer than ever, insatiably absorbing new facts and information – from technology to nutrition, wellness and health management – and enjoying longer lifespans and better health than ever before.

StatsCan notes that seniors outnumber children for the first time in Canada’s history. The proportion of seniors in the Canadian population is expected to double by 2025 and, by 2056, a third of the population will be 65 or older. The aging- gracefully baby boomers are a key segment of the demographic shift which is already having a significant impact on health care. Seniors account for nearly half of Canada’s health care spending.

According to Health Canada, injuries are the biggest culprit. They have enormous consequences for seniors and their caregivers, and are costly to the Canadian health system. Falls are the leading cause of injury among seniors, while vehicular collisions are the leading cause of accidental deaths in the 65-74 age group. Falls and vehicular collisions together account for approximately 91 per cent of injury-related hospital admissions among seniors.

“The health situation, wants and needs of seniors has evolved over the past few years,” says the experienced Kathy Mendham, founder and seniors advisor at Proactive Seniors, the Calgary-based service that helps seniors and their families identify and access the many available senior services and navigate the difficult discussions and decisions related to planning for aging.

The profile of contemporary senior health matters is rapidly changing, and so is the focus and life-strategy of contemporary seniors. Although things happen and nature and life in general have a way of unfolding as it will, gerontologists and other health professionals underscore the importance of seniors seeking out ways to stay healthy, and as strong and flexible as possible.

“It’s a different generation of seniors with different ideologies,” she points out. “While the ‘older seniors’ tend to rely mostly on traditional doctors and specialists, ‘younger seniors’ are trying different things such as meditation, group programs and having a broader team of care and support providers.”

Doctors and specialists emphasize that staying healthy is a valuable way for seniors to maintain independence, and suggest five factors that are vital for healthy aging: healthy eating, injury prevention, oral health, physical activity and stopping smoking. Proper nutrition, regular physical exercise, proactively addressing hearing and vision issues, and avoiding certain activities such as smoking have been shown to reduce the likelihood of developing a variety of chronic diseases.

The new health focus of today’s senior: extending overall life expectancy.

Drastically updated findings and statistics show that through better management of vascular risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure), there is an overall drop in the incidence of certain forms of dementia.

A lingering but dated stereotype was today’s senior generation being loyal and reliant on their family doctor. And although it is personal and individual, seniors are devouring the latest information, more and more curious and broadening their scope of new, alternative and preventative health care options.

Many of today’s senior embrace the realities of modern life as opportunities. As the transition into aged care sets in, there is usually careful thought and preparation, as well as the human nature factor of some concern and trepidation – about how life is about to change. There’s no doubt about it. Entering aged care can sometimes seem like a stressful upheaval and a senior’s big change from the lifestyle that the aging person is familiar with.

A contemporary trend for seniors is exploring the possibilities of holistic and preventative health care. Mendham points out a practical but realistic reluctance for alternative health care among Canadian seniors for whom health care has always been “free,” as a vital social benefit. “Seniors in-general can be hesitant to pay for health care services out of pocket, and sometimes resist accessing fee-for-service providers such as physio, occupational therapy, psychology, nutritionists, etc., unless the services are covered by a health plan. We do have a number of clients who access private physician clinics but I think in terms of Calgary’s population, the uptake is likely pretty low.

“This generation is used to medical care being covered and they also tend not to spend much money on themselves. This is changing with the baby boomer generation becoming the ‘senior’ demographic,” she says. “I think this group will be much more responsive and receptive to reaching out for support beyond the traditional medical model of care.”

When people talk about being healthy, they are usually talking about being free of physical symptoms of illness. Contrary to the assumptions and cliches,

holistic health care and wellness is about a lot more than just being physically active. It’s also about living a well-rounded lifestyle. The perfect combination of physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

Geriatric specialists explain that, high quality, holistic aged care does not just mean that an aging person receives the physical and medical support they need, although this is certainly a key aspect of many care models. It also means the person receives the emotional, social, spiritual and personal support that they need to ensure their quality of life is of the highest possible standard.

As today’s seniors transition into their new phase of life, they are bound to have legitimate concerns about the unexpected, how they will change physically, psychologically, socially, and how their environment and behaviour will evolve. While some seniors may adjust to these changes easily, others may develop emotional and/or psychological problems.

Thankfully, there are various holistic approaches for seniors to find happiness and boost their overall health and well-being in the process. Holistic care may include

any number of aspects to ensure all of a person’s needs are being met and can include exercises such as yoga and light strength training for relaxation and motor skills, music therapy and sing-a-longs to encourage social interaction, or massage and aromatherapy to help manage anxiety or a worried mind.

Some things rarely change. Proper diet and medications are a recurring problem in the management of senior health.

“Medication is sometimes a problem,” Mendham points out. “Physicians and pharmacists seem to be getting better at managing complex medication regimes for the most part. There has been a push to reduce overmedicating seniors and we are seeing improvements here. However, we occasionally find a senior who is not well managed from a medication perspective. They often have multiple physicians or are taking medications that were prescribed years ago for conditions that have resolved. More often the issue with medication is taking them improperly. It is not uncommon for us to identify situations where the senior is not taking the right pills at the right time. This often comes down to issues with understanding and remembering the medication regime, losing pills or not being able to see them, or the family caregiver not understanding the importance of the regime and being too lackadaisical about it.”

She notes that most seniors try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, but many find they have a diminished appetite as they age, so it can take some effort to eat consistent meals and skipping meals can be a problem. “We often hear that seniors are tired or bored with cooking. And for various reasons, they may eat poorly, buy low quality food or don’t eat often enough.”

The urge to consider preventative and alternate options is vital for Kathy Mendham and the Proactive Seniors specialists. “It’s important to think about what ‘thriving’ while aging means and what the individual’s hopes and wishes are. Engaging professionals to help assess function and limitations and recommend appropriate supports are critical but complicated steps.”

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