Older, but Wiser - Staying on the Path to Successful Aging

It’s no great secret we change throughout our lives - physically, mentally, emotionally. Some common stereotypes may have us believe that by the time we’re in our 60s life is in decline, overly familiar...well, like an old hat. The truth is life after 60 can be one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable times in our lives.

“Getting older doesn’t mean you will have poor health,” says Dr. Dan Dickinson, Optima Health medical director. “Many people, even those with chronic health issues, have an amazing life throughout their senior years. Focusing on your capabilities and what’s important to you—including your physical and emotional health - is a great place to start.”

You can’t prevent getting older, but you can be wise about the aging process and take steps to minimize potential health issues and negative effects. Some of the world’s greatest accomplishments have been made by people in their later years. So don’t waste all that hard earned wisdom and experience. Here’s a look at some of the most important health risks facing seniors and some tips for getting the most out of life after 60.

Don’t be an Island

Perhaps the most significant health challenge for older adults is isolation, advises Dr. Dickinson. Staying connected with other people is crucial to physical and emotional health.

“Depression is a real danger among seniors,” says Dr. Dickinson. “Maintaining and developing new social relationships is key to fighting depression and staying active mentally and physically. People who are socially active and have support systems to help manage hardship overwhelmingly have better health outcomes and live happier, longer lives.”

Here are a few ideas to help you stay connected:

  • Spend time with people whose company you enjoy—perhaps a neighbor, friends, family, children. Reach out to people who share your interests. Build and nurture your social circle. Be the event organizer if needed.
  • Volunteer. Giving back to your community is an excellent way to stay mentally and physically active and meet others. Be a mentor to someone younger. Host exchange students, athletes, or international visitors.
  • Try to do at least one social activity per day. Regular face-to-face contact helps you ward off depression and stay positive. If you’re out of practice, keep trying. It gets easier. Host a brunch, book club, walking group, or other activity.
  • Participate in support groups to help manage change or hardship. If you are coping with a serious illness or recent loss, ask health providers about support groups that include people working through the same challenges.
  • Join a gym or exercise group. It pays twice the dividend by helping you socialize and maintain regular physical activity—two of the most important things you can do for your health. A sedentary lifestyle in older age puts you at higher risk for more health issues, cognitive decline, mobility issues, and falls. Learn More, Read Tips for Staying Physically Active as You get Older

Manage Your Health

What is the trick to living a long, healthy life? Is it genetics? Is there some special diet or exercise? Is it luck? There are no quick fixes to managing your health and successful aging, but there are plenty of common sense strategies to staying as healthy as possible.

“Although your body responds and reacts differently as you get older, many of the negative effects of aging and potential health issues are controllable,” says Dr. Masoumeh Kiamanesh, Optima Health gerontologist. “Staying active, exercising, eating a healthy diet, treating medical conditions all increase your ability to age successfully.”

“We try to set a baseline for patients by identifying what they do to maintain their health and what they know about their care and potential outcomes,” adds Dr. Kiamanesh. “Many seniors underestimate how important it is to be an advocate for their health or how beneficial healthy habits are, even if they are started later in life.”

Here are some tips for managing your health.

  • Coordinate your care. Get regular health screenings and be proactive about your health. Know what medical conditions you have and the names of your medicines. Regular immunizations, like flu and pneumonia shots, are simple ways that you and your doctor can work together to maintain your health. Talk openly and honestly with your health care providers about the risks and benefits of all medical interventions. Take advantage of resources and innovative programs offered by your health care and insurance providers to help prevent health issues before they start.
  • Stay mentally and physically active. Twenty to 30 minutes of exercise, stretching, and light, weight bearing activity significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis. Many activities such as walking, swimming, yoga, or gardening can remain enjoyable throughout life. Challenge yourself to learn new skills and use the knowledge you’ve accumulated. Studies have shown that staying physically and mentally active reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods, particularly vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains. Eat low fat, lean proteins. Get enough calcium by drinking low fat milk and eating low fat yogurt and cheese. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Learn More, Read Tips for Older Adults on Eating Healthy.
  • Quit smoking and limit alcohol.

Maintain Good Access to Your Care

Poor access to care leads to delays in treatment, poor outcomes, undetected conditions, or hospitalizations that could have been prevented.

“Sometimes the issues are complex, but frequently solutions may be as simple as knowing who to call after hours,” says Dr. Dickinson. “Making sure patients are aware that an on call physician or after hours nurse may be able to help them or coordinate their care more efficiently and economically than an ER encourages them to seek help when needed.”

Dr. Dickinson points to healthcare practices tailored specifically to the needs of seniors. Optima Health nurses and Senior Services frequently work with patients to explore and remove barriers, such as transportation, identifying specialists, financial issues, and convenient appointment times.

Sentara Healthcare’s Care Plus coordinates care across physicians, nutritionists, pharmacists and other specialists throughout the practice to help ensure a more complete patient view. It has longer appointment times and same day scheduling to better manage immediate needs.

“Outcomes are typically better for seniors in programs like Care Plus,” says Dr. Dickinson.

“Our goal is to make it easier for patients to be proactive and ask for help before issues arise,” says Dr. Kiamanesh. “When needed we connect them with nutritionists, therapists, and other professionals to help improve their health literacy and build better habits.”

Here are some tips to improve your access to care:

  • Work with your health care team to evaluate your needs. Determine the barriers to managing your health and accessing care. Determine which things might require assistance then create a schedule and plan for who can provide help.
  • Create a transportation plan. If you don’t drive, ask family and friends if they would be willing to give you a ride. Find out about buses, trains, and shuttles in your area. If you need help finding a ride, talk to your care provider about community programs that offer transportation services.
  • Evaluate your insurance plan to ensure you have the best coverage for your needs and budget.

Be Prepared for Costs

Most seniors are concerned about the impact of health care costs on their budget and lifestyle. “Many prescriptions go unfilled or appointments missed because of concerns about cost,” says Dr. Dickinson. “If you have concerns, discussing options with your health and insurance providers is a good first step.”

Some options for covering the cost of care include:

  • Medicare is federal health insurance for seniors over 65 who have worked for at least 10 years. The total amount covered by Medicare depends on the type of coverage chosen, kind of care received, how often it is needed, total costs, and whether other policies cover gaps.
  • Medicaid helps low-income individuals including seniors cover medical costs. Medicaid rules and qualifications vary by state. It’s important to investigate how programs work and eligibility requirements.
  • Private health insurance, purchased or provided by employers, covers certain required medical expenses and a portion of many common procedures, depending on the type of coverage. Additional coverage is available for prescriptions, vision, dental, and long-term care. Supplemental polices to cover gaps in Medicare are also available.
  • Seniors and their spouses who are veterans may also qualify for health benefits sponsored by the Veteran’s Administration.

As people get older, their wisdom is expressed by focusing on what is most important and taking advantage of their strengths rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. Any age is the right time to savor life and start on the path to successful aging.

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