How to Navigate Successful Aging

4 min
May 23, 2017

Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” This might sum up a philosophy held by Beatrice, a former New York City principal, guidance counselor and teacher who recently turned 99-years-old. “I’m always optimistic. I never look at the downside,” she said.

But optimism isn’t the only reason Beatrice is still vibrant and strong. She says she never smoked, never drank, always exercised, played sports and danced. She also has another explanation for her long life — an attention to detail about health issues and the support of friends and family, particularly her grandson, Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, MD, PhD, Assistant professor of medicine, University of California, San Diego and a consultant to my organization, West Health.

West Health’s mission is to enable seniors to successfully age in place, with access to high-quality, affordable health and support services that preserve and protect their dignity, quality of life and independence. Beatrice is an excellent example of someone who is aging gracefully. She is living on her own terms, but that’s by no accident. It takes a combination of careful planning, help from friends, loved ones and caregivers, and a responsive healthcare and social support system.

Beatrice keeps a busy schedule. Aside from the time she spends with family and friends, cooking and enjoying a good book, she sees two to four healthcare providers in any given week for general check-ups and health issues ranging from knee, back and eye problems to dental issues.

“When it comes to my health, I have to keep on top of it. If I have something going on medically, I want to know the truth. I want to know everything. I want to know what I can do, and if there is something I can’t change, I accept it,” Beatrice said.

She keeps track of everything, but so does her grandson, Dr. Aronoff-Spencer, a physician and aging researcher, who lives about 30 minutes away.

“The logistics of aging are totally daunting, particularly for the millions of seniors living with chronic conditions who must navigate a complex healthcare and social support system,” said Dr. Aronoff-Spencer. “The key is coordination and planning. It’s simply amazing what my grandma does on her own. She knows exactly what’s going on and is vigilant about getting the right care at the right time. However, she does require help and support sometimes and I try to do all that I can for her, but balancing the responsibilities of a job and caregiving can be difficult.”

According to “Families Caring for an Aging America,” a report issued last September by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, at least 17.7 million individuals in the United States are family caregivers for someone age 65 or older who has a significant impairment – a number that is only expected to grow with the aging of America.

The emotional, financial and educational challenges of caregiving can be enormous, but so too can the rewards. Caregiving can help seniors maintain their independence, stay connected to family and friends, remain healthy and enjoy a higher quality of life.

“We speak on the phone often, though maybe less than grandma would like. From a health standpoint, we almost always review what must happen and when. I want her healthcare to be less of a burden so she can spend more time focusing on the things that make her happy. If I could, I would see her every day. Unfortunately, life gets in the way and I don’t feel I see her enough. But, we do stay involved in each other’s lives, and I’m grateful for my time with her.”

Caregivers are critical aspect of the healthcare system and truly “unsung heroes.” They provide emotional and financial support, help navigate complex healthcare situations and serve as critical sources of information such as medical issues, and over-the-counter and prescription medication usage.

Despite the important role they play, family caregivers are too often excluded from treatment decisions, care planning and health and wellness discussions. Additionally, caregivers are not always given the tools or information to help seniors after they leave the doctor’s office, clinic or hospital.

More Needs to be Done

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in its 2016 report said action is needed now to prepare healthcare and social service systems for our growing senior population.

Family caregiving can negatively affect the mental and physical health of caregivers themselves and cause economic harm. The report calls for healthcare delivery system reform that puts family-centered care alongside person-centered care to better account for the roles of caregivers and to support their involvement in the care delivery process.

The report says a national caregiving strategy is greatly needed and immediate steps should be taken to address the health, economic and social issues facing family caregivers.

Recommendations include: routinely identifying and addressing the needs of family caregivers; incentivizing healthcare providers to engage with caregivers through payment reforms and care models that incorporate their involvement; creating a public-private, multi-stakeholder innovation fund for research and innovation into caregivers; and addressing and support family diversity.

Family caregivers shouldn’t have to go it alone. Informal caregiving for seniors was valued monetarily at $522 billion in 2014, according to a Rand report. However, the care they truly provide is priceless. Let’s do what we can to support them and the seniors they care for.

For more information, visit West Health and for the “Prepare to Care Guide,” visit AARP.

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Shelley Lyford
CEO, Chair & Trustee, Gary and Mary West Foundation
CEO & Chair, West Health Institute