While the opinions may vary on the proper age to be categorized as a senior citizen, what is certain is that people are living longer and leading more active lives. Depending on an individual’s general condition, there may come a time when they want to consider care from a geriatrician.
“Geriatric care differs from that of the care of younger people, primarily in the fact that older people generally experience more chronic health problems and social issues,” explained UT Physicians geriatric medicine expert Holly Holmes, MD. “A vast majority of these patients can have issues such as cognitive impairments, issues of incontinence, or falls that can cause injuries.”
Holmes added that seniors are often experiencing multiple problems at once, resulting in longer and more frequent appointments with their doctor. Furthermore, their ailments may stem from a singular issue which causes an array of challenges, called geriatric syndromes.
“Older patients are typically receiving care and treatment to manage matters such as high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, acute brain dysfunction, or complications from prior heart attack or stroke. Geriatric doctors take an additional year of clinical care training to specialize in these conditions,” said Holmes, professor and Joan and Stanford Alexander Chair in Gerontology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “There are now over 50 million people in the U.S. over the age of 65, yet only about 7,000 of full-time, practicing physicians in the country are board-certified in geriatric medicine. At fewer than 2%, it’s this ratio which emphasizes how education about geriatric care is vital.”
Healthy aging; increasing physical and mental well-being
In planning for future living, Holmes emphasizes thinking practically about your health status, everyday needs, and living environment well in advance.
“People should think proactively about how they will age, even before a milestone like retirement from professional life. It is about planning for a longer, and hopefully healthier lifestyle before health problems come along,” said Holmes, who serves as vice president of community engagement for UTHealth Houston. “As people age and can become more isolated, they may need more help creating a healthy daily routine. As such, they must think about the tasks essential to being independent, such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, paying bills, and personal grooming and hygiene. If tasks like these become a significant challenge, a senior may need to rethink their living environment and if additional support is required.”
As the senior citizen population increases, so are the varying examples of longevity and wellness. People are living well into their 80s and 90s and avoiding chronic illnesses.
Holmes noted that many of the factors related to longevity stem from genetic determinants, but other factors are modifiable and include good habits such as maintaining a healthy diet, active lifestyle, socialization, limited consumption of alcohol, and no smoking.
“There is so much that older people can do to remain healthy, and it is never too late to change behaviors, take up good habits, and treat chronic problems,” Holmes said. “An important part of this is maintaining physical activity, which benefits both the body and mind.”
Consciousness and support to seniors: What to do
In today’s fast-paced society where many are in a constant rush, senior citizens are too often overlooked, which includes their everyday needs and care. This lack of attention often gets further emphasized through anti-aging messaging. Whether it’s a family member, a neighbor, or a co-worker, people should take the time to acknowledge and appreciate elders, interact with them, and create opportunities for them to be recognized.
“We have to remember that older people lead rich, experienced lives,” Holmes said. “Many have lots to share, and likewise, they have a sincere interest in providing their wisdom for the benefit of others.”
Holmes also suggests for older people to consider volunteering their time at places like a museum, library, or other similar venues. It can be a useful way of giving back and staying actively engaged.
“Being a volunteer offers an opportunity to contribute and provide a service that’s valued,” Holmes said. “People who do it gain a sense of belonging, plus increased self-worth and satisfaction.”
August 21 is National Senior Citizens Day, which recognizes the valuable contributions of seniors.
Whether it’s convening at a local coffeehouse, a public green space, or within an independent living community, arranging time to casually chat with others is a great means of social interaction. Additionally, making the trip to and from the location can be beneficial for maintaining physical and mental activity.
“Meet-ups are a great way to make new acquaintances, share stories, and keep the mind active,” Holmes said. “This bonding also can prevent feelings of isolation and improve emotional well-being.”
Providing useful aid when needed
In showing support to seniors, Holmes reminds to be mindful to not coddle or treat them like children.
“While in good faith, people can provide more assistance to seniors than is truly necessary. Not to say we shouldn’t help a senior with their groceries or crossing a busy street, of course,” Holmes said. “As long as a person is able, we should motivate them to be as independent as possible. Doing things for oneself as they continue in the latter stages of life is a vital part of aging in place.”
UT Physicians is home to a clinic that specializes in the care of seniors. The UT Physicians Center for Healthy Aging – Bellaire Station is a comprehensive outpatient clinic that is staffed by an interdisciplinary team. Learn more or schedule an appointment.