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Looking for The Fountain of Youth: Seven Problems of Denial in the Elderly

Fountain of youth concept.My 96-year-old father is still looking for the remedy that will help him feel younger! Perhaps you know or are caring for someone who also thinks that the right doctor, procedure or pill will reverse or prevent the effects of aging. Of course, it’s only natural for an elderly person to wish they could feel, act and use their minds and bodies the way they did even 10 or 20 years ago. There really are some things they can do that will help them feel better than if they weren’t doing them. But how to get your loved one to understand the difference between what is a realistic remedy or expectation and when it is time to accept their limitations can be a touchy subject.

1. The Right Doctor

When I started driving Dad to his doctor appointments, I was surprised to find that he went regularly to:

  • A Gerontologist
  • A Prostate Specialist
  • A Knee Specialist
  • A Lung Specialist
  • A Podiatrist
  • A Dentist
  • An Ophthalmologist

He also has daily in-home visits from a home-care nurse who takes care of his diabetic needs. Fortunately, in Dad’s case, I discovered that the Gerontologist could oversee his prostate, knees and lungs and give even more effective care because he takes into account things like the unique side-effects of some medications on the elderly and how a person with dementia might react to being told he doesn’t need oxygen when he is “just sitting.” Often, he wisely says to Dad, “Lynn, the only thing wrong with you is that you’re 96 years old!)

Every case is different, but you should at least have your loved one’s Primary Care Physician (a Gerontologist if you can find one) evaluate which visits to specialists are really necessary. Some people go so far as to leave the country in search of a doctor who would tell them what they want to hear.

2. The Right Pill

Dad used to spend literally thousands of dollars a year on herbal supplements that he was convinced would help him do things like regrow his hair, restore his memory or be completely without joint pain. When he moved to an assisted living facility, all medications, even mail-order or over-the-counter, had to go through their pharmacy and have either a prescription or a special order from a doctor. Thankfully, I no longer have to struggle to try to help him understand why most claims in brochures are probably not realistic and how some supplements could be dangerous to his health, especially when taken in such quantities that he could be overdosing on some substances.

The bottom line is that it’s safer to only take medications approved by the FDA and prescribed by a doctor, but if your loved one insists on ordering and taking non-approved drugs, you might have to go to extreme measures to keep him or her safe.

3. The Perfect Diet

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear of a new “miracle” food or diet that will slow the effects of aging. Some are backed by convincing studies, but it also seems like, from year to year, some foods switch from being good for us to bad for us. Dad is diabetic and so has special dietary needs, but even with a doctor’s advice, we have to face the risks of letting him eat some things that aren’t good for him, just because it will be one of the few pleasures in his day. A balanced diet that is high in anti-oxidants seems to have almost universal approval, but check with your doctor for special needs and don’t expect miracles from blueberries alone!

4. Brain Games

Some people are fortunate to make it to old age with brains that have retained their short-term memory, the ability to reason and to think logically, but as of yet, no one has figured out exactly why. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are so prevalent, especially as the population lives to be older and older, that not only specialists but all of us are looking for ways to keep our minds functioning at peak performance. Some people swear by crossword or Sudoku puzzles. There’s not harm in doing them, but it has yet to be proved that those who do remain mentally functional longer than others. Some studies have shown that learning a new language and learning to play a musical instrument can actually create new synapses, or connections, in the brain. But at some point, most of us will have to realize that mental limitations such as the ability to remember names or scheduled events, will probably affect us as we get older.

5. Exercise

There are many studies that prove the benefits of regular exercise and the shorter longevity of most people who are couch potatoes. However, even on the advice of a doctor, ensuring that we or our loved ones get enough of the right kind of exercise is easier said than done. For example, Dad’s knees don’t always want to cooperate when he stands or sits, but after he’s gotten up and down 2-3 times, I notice a difference in increased ability and lessened pain. However, he cannot see the benefit of standing and sitting as an exercise that he does except when needed to go somewhere! Again, check with a doctor to see which exercise plan you or your loved one can safely follow, but don’t expect to live to be 100 just because you have always been active.

6. Mobility

Usually, most of the the issues we face with mobility in the elderly have to do with how to move around safely. Probably all of us have met someone who won’t use a cane or a walker because they “don’t need it” or they think it makes them “look old.” In reality, they are at high-risk of falling without some kind of support. Transferring to a wheelchair is even more difficult to accept. The unfortunate fact is that one of the highest causes of death in the elderly is a fall. If you want to live longer and you start to experience a loss of balance or other conditions that make falling more likely, the only way to ensure your safety is to accept your limitations and use the level of help you need to prevent falls. (See our blog on Preventing Falls for other issues and remedies.)

7. Hygiene

I can hardly believe it, but Dad refuses to brush his teeth. Maybe he just doesn’t remember to do it, but he also says things like, “I’m 96 years old. If I don’t want to do it, I shouldn’t have to!” Even when his dentist tells Dad and I remind him that poor mouth hygieneis not only hard on his teeth but can cause mouth sores that will be difficult to get rid of, especially in a diabetic, he remains unconvinced. Dad has a homecare aide who comes in 3 times a week to help him shower and shave, but he still has daily issues with hygiene caused by incontinence, failure to wash his hands regularly or even using a tissue to wipe his constantly dripping nose. Good hygiene is especially important to longevity in those with compromised immune systems. I’ve tried the “You’ll live longer” pitch with Dad, but so far it isn’t working.

These seven problems are not meant to be an all-inclusive list of the things we or our loved ones foolishly to do or don’t do in the search for The Fountain of Youth. However, periodically taking stock of what more we or our loved one can realistically do in order to feel better and live longer is surely a good thing.

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