the value of self-care related to aging

Posted: March 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

I work at what is called a CCRC – a Continuing Care Retirement Community.  Basically it is a lot of options for senior housing and care all rolled up into one.  We have independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing care.  We have rehabilitation and hospice and in-home companion care.  It’s not a field I ever thought about going into, before life and God landed me at what has turned out to be the best place I’ve ever worked – the LAST place I intend to work, barring God having other ideas.

I’ve mentioned here before that my boss (the CEO) is kind of a genius when it comes to both hiring and managing his leadership staff.  One of the great ways he heads us is his determination that we will be well-read in our field.  Every day he finds articles about what we do and I am assigned to send them out to the team.  While I suppose the others could elect to read them or not, I blessedly don’t have an option, since part of sending them out is saving them in a searchable form so that we can pull any article up later to be used for various meetings, discussions, papers, etc.  I have to read every word of every article in order to tag as many keywords as possible and come up with one simple line to capture what it’s about.  Having done this well, I have a rich resource of hundreds of articles, and I can punch in what I’m looking for, from dementia to hospital readmissions to Medicaid regulations, and immediately have a list of articles that speak to the subject.  Managing this part of my job forces me to be current on what’s happening in our field on a wide variety of topics, which is fun for a greedy reader and knowledge junkie like myself.

It has been a real eye-opener for me especially on the topic of the importance of self-care.  It turns out that though heredity does play some uncontrollable role in our long-term health and well being, we have a lot more control on how we age than I’d have guessed before I entered this field.  Constant reading of studies on aging has kind of left me without excuse – I don’t get to pretend that my daily choice to take good care of myself is a small matter.

Oh, it’s all very common sense stuff.  Probably it’s painfully obvious to many of you.  But my natural inner narrative has not gone there without a steady deluge of facts and evidence.  The following things, all of which are totally within my ability to control, matter greatly:

Exercise – it’s not only about trying to have a hot body for today.  Only the most willfully ignorant person today doesn’t know exercise is a factor in heart health.  But did you know it’s a factor in brain health – that exercise is a tool against dementia and Alzheimer’s?  Apparently exercise increases gray matter in the brain.  So taking the elevator instead of the stairs isn’t just about reducing my girth – it’s waging war against fading mentally away in a fashion that none of us hopes for.

Diet – even those who don’t read voraciously know that there are studies all the time addressing the effect of what we put into our mouths on what happens inside of our bodies.  Science is getting pretty sharp these days at finding out which foods help us fight for physical and mental longevity.  Blueberries and coconut oil are a very big deal, and there’s a long list of other really yummy “you should eat this” stuff out there for one who wants to live long, or for those like me who are less invested in length of life and more concerned about quality (yes, there are foods to avoid, but I think if we’d focus really hard on getting in the good stuff, we wouldn’t have room on our plates for so much from the “don’t eat this” list).  Wine, IN MODERATION, turns out to be a friend for both the heart and the memory in the long run.  The most stunning-to-me detail about the effect of food:  seniors who eat too many calories are in more danger of dementia.  How crazy is that?!

Dental health – I was amazed a few years ago to learn that the plaque in my mouth can affect the health of my heart.  What?!  How can the two be related?!  But they are.  Yesterday I read that there is even more news on that front – gum disease can increase your “inflammatory markers,” which can affect brain health.  In other words, rot in your gums can contribute to dementia.  For real!  While I’m all about the toothbrush, I’ve just never managed to develop a regular flossing habit.  I’ll be prodding myself with this information to help change that as part of celebrating being 50.

Hydration – as part of my job, I take complaints from our residents.  I’ve learned over years of doing this that if a resident becomes forgetful, combative, paranoid or even just especially grumpy, I need to let the nursing staff know so they can encourage that resident to be tested for a UTI (urinary tract infection).  For the life of me I don’t understand how the bladder is connected to the brain, but this is a real thing – some of the most lovely seniors can become overnight conspiracy theorists wrapped in a fog of fear or rage for the simple reason that they have a UTI.  Now – that’s not ONLY from lack of hydration, but for sure it’s a major contributor.

Companionship – we are not created to hide out alone in a room somewhere.  Even we introverts need interaction with other people for our mental and physical health.  Studies show increased problems with dementia and such related to isolation, and you’re just plain more likely to die when you lack social interaction.

Mental stimulation – some studies connect a higher level of formal education with better brain health in the long run.  For sure, we lose what we don’t use when it comes to learning and other mental gymnastics.  Intentional mental stimulation can stave off dementia to some extent.  Of course if we’ve lived all our younger years letting all that slide, it’s going to be somewhere between difficult and impossible for us to develop habits that exercise our brains in our late years.

As I said, this is pretty basic stuff.  Sadly, I’m one of those people who needs frightening facts like this to help me move toward rigorous self-care.  Wanting to be prettier or more socially acceptable doesn’t get me all the way there.  Admonition that “it’s the right thing to do” barely makes a dent in my resistance.  Learning that by my daily choices I may be choosing for or against being physically comfortable and mentally present in my old age, if I should happen to make it to that stage of life?  That speaks to me.  It daily shapes and changes my choices for the better.  If I stopped reading constantly about it, I’d probably settle almost instantly back into complacency (gotta be real about that!) but for now it’s beautifully in my face all the time, making it easier for me to choose well when it comes to self-care.

I’m grateful for that!



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