I was talking with my friend the other night about - you guessed it - aging well. During the conversation, she asked – “how can someone who has had a chronic disease for 30 years possibly do that?”
Her question surprised me because she seemed to be a perfect example of someone who had aged well despite life’s circumstances. If you didn’t know she had MS (MS - multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of the nerves), you would never realize it nor would she tell you.
Over the years, she experienced many symptoms – from eyes not seeing clearly to a leg that doesn’t always work the way she wants. Yet, during that time she earned a Ph.D., worked for a large corporation, taught at a university, and traveled all over the world. Colleagues never knew her health situation; she hid it well.
Today she drives a car, has her own home, and pilots her own boat. Although retired, she volunteers for organizations, goes to exercise classes, and is socially active. While she wears a brace on her leg and uses a cane when she takes walks, she takes no medication.
Her journey has been filled with struggle, frustration, and pain, but she adapts and perseveres. One example is the boat. Although she switched from a sailboat to a tugboat as the MS progressed, she rigged each boat in ways that help her pilot it - on her own.
I asked if she ever felt sorry for herself and she said no, but she does think how lucky other people are who don’t have the disease. She accepts the rough times, keeps going, and takes a break when needed.
Chronic disease is not uncommon. Many well-known personalities – young and old – face similar challenges as my friend. At the age of 29, the actor, Michael J. Fox, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Take a few minutes to watch his story below.
My “chronic disease” is headaches – I have had them in various shapes and sizes for 60 years. Medication didn’t really help and meditation is somewhat helpful. Basically, I ignore them and keep going. While they rarely stop me, they do get in the way.
A recent research study by the National Institute of Health defined the problem well saying
By 2030, the number of older adults in the US will more than double to about 71 million. However, not all will age successfully [or well], even if they have no distinctive co-morbid health condition. This rapidly increasing number of older Americans, as well as those in other areas of the globe, will probably have high rates of chronic diseases, which may be barriers to the achievement of a fully functional life. . .
The NIH website offers several suggestions for supporting an older person with a chronic condition. One suggestion is to “appreciate that people living with chronic disease are often living with loss — the loss of physical function, independence, or general well-being.”
A second suggestion is to educate the person and his or her family. The authors note that “most older patients want to understand their medical conditions and are interested in learning how to manage them.”
A third suggestion is to explain the treatment plan. Some older patients refuse treatment because they don’t understand what it involves or how it can improve their health. They may be frightened about side effects or have misinformation, so clear explanations are critical.
Living with a chronic illness can be physically and mentally debilitating. The toll it takes on your body can affect your ability to cope with psychological and emotional stress. A chronic illness can make it impossible to do the things you enjoy and rob you of hope for the future.
As The Playbook website says
There are many strategies to help enhance your well-being so that you can live better with your condition. Caring for both your physical health and emotional well-being can help you cope better with chronic illness.
It is up to you and your doctor to manage your physical health, but I can offer ideas for taking care of your emotional well-being.
When dealing with a chronic disease, you may experience a myriad of intense and long-lasting feelings - everything from exhaustion and fear to guilt and resentment because of the demands on family and friends. Feelings of frustration and sadness are also quite common when you realize the life you once knew is now gone or at least different.
Charles Swindoll, author and educator, says
That is really all we have to work with - our reaction to our situation.
Approximately 150 million Americans have been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Of that 150 million, about 100 million have been diagnosed with more than one. Although it may seem easier to focus on the negative instead of the positive, shifting your mindset can actually help you improve your condition and minimize your symptoms.
Maintaining a positive attitude can help you improve your mood and avoid mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. If you’re able to focus on the good in life, you may be less likely to experience feelings of sadness and worry.
Staying positive can put you in a better position to heal your body. If you constantly worry and focus on negative aspects of your life, it’s easy for you to enter a frame of mind that takes over just as if you encountered a saber-toothed tiger. It diverts blood from the digestive system to your limbs to help you fight for your life.
My friend says it’s all about choices. She chooses to see the good and find ways to keep going.
Dibs Baer, a woman with rheumatoid arthritis, thinks of living with a chronic disease in a different way. Take a look.
An angle I hadn’t thought about previously was that a person can encounter chronic illnesses as they age, but the chronic condition could result from not taking care of him or herself in the early years. In that case, the 8 dimensions of wellness can help prevent chronic disease to a degree.
So, a person can age well even with a chronic illness, but it takes additional work, commitment, and an attitude that supports a healthy approach.