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A Holistic Approach to Healthy Aging

iStock 000021964189XSmallWe hear the buzzword “holistic” a lot these days. But what does it really mean for us as we age?

The term “holistic” comes from the Greek “holism,” which means all, whole, entire, total. A holistic philosophy encompasses the entirety of an interdependent system. It recognizes that each aspect has an effect on the whole; that individual components do not function in isolation. Everything affects everything else.

 

So, in a holistic approach to healthcare, that means we consider every aspect of a person’s life—not just the one body part that happens to ail in the moment. Of course, the physical symptoms are important. But we also look at the mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social, and other dynamics in a person’s life to understand what’s going on. We attempt to bring all of these aspects into balance so the person can live a well-rounded, healthy and functional life. We don’t just try to fix the headache with a pill.

I truly believe that taking a holistic approach to aging can make the process more enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s not how long you live—it’s how well you live. There are a few key ideas that I think most people can embrace.

  1. First and foremost, it is vital to forge and maintain supportive social relationships and to stay active and engaged. Everyone wants to feel loved and needed; this may be especially true as we get older. It can be all too easy to stay in and become isolated and depressed. Some ways you can help yourself include:
  2. Take advantage of social opportunities. There is a smorgasbord of activities available through churches, recreation centers, perhaps the facility where you live, and other organizations. What do you love? Attending the theater? Playing cards? Visiting museums? Shopping? Painting? Dancing? Although you may feel uncomfortable at first, challenge yourself to get out and get involved!
  3. Nurture your relationships with family members. Sometimes I see patients who are estranged from or disgruntled with their children and other family members for various reasons. Life is short and these people are precious to you. Try to find forgiveness and ask the same from them.
  4. Volunteer your time. You’d be surprised how many worthy nonprofit organizations need help. If you have special expertise in an area, by all means, offer it! If not, it can be just as helpful (and enjoyable) to spend an afternoon stuffing envelopes along with other people and chatting.
  5. Practice your faith. Whatever form it may take for you, maintaining your connection to a higher power can provide strength and inspiration. And a faith community of like-minded people can make you feel included and loved.
  6. Find a primary care physician/provider who you trust. It is important to have a relationship with a healthcare provider with whom you feel entirely comfortable. If you don’t feel that you can talk about absolutely anything with your physician, it’s time to look for a different one.

Next, make it a habit to practice self-care religiously. If you never learned to make yourself a priority when you were younger, this is an excellent time to start. Good self-care means you are conscious about and attending to all the various things required to keep yourself as healthy and happy as possible. Because, ultimately, you are accountable for your own health and well-being!

  1. See your primary healthcare provider regularly. Now, I’m not saying this just because I am a geriatric physician assistant. You’ll do yourself a big favor if you stay on top of your healthcare visits and communicate openly with your provider about any and all physical concerns you may have. This is true whether you have ongoing medical concerns or are feeling great. Medicare now pays for an “Annual Wellness Visit,” a session in which you and your physician can discuss your health and other important aspects of your life. Take advantage of this resource!
  2. Feed yourself a healthy, nutritious diet. We are discovering more every day about the relationship between food and health. Stay away from highly processed, packaged, fast and fried foods. Eat your fresh fruits, veggies, grains, and lean proteins. And know that it is not uncommon to have emotional struggles with food. Often people eat inappropriately in response to stress, sadness, boredom, or depression. Still other people have the opposite reaction—they stop eating when they feel sad. I encourage you to talk with your medical care provider if you struggle with your relationship to food.
  3. Get a good night’s sleep. Regardless of age, the body needs good, sound sleep to restore and recover. A brief catnap during the day is okay, but don’t overdo it. Staying active during the day will help you sleep well at night. In most cases, I discourage my patients from using prescription sleep aides—I think they can sometimes do more harm than good.
  4. Exercise regularly within your ability. This will look different for everyone. But regardless of whether you’re walking, doing a seated exercise class, or maybe even yoga or a round of golf, exercise has great benefits to the mind and body. It will help keep you physically strong and flexible while feeling good mentally and emotionally. Just check with your medical provider before starting any new strenuous activity to be sure it is appropriate for you.
  5. Stretch your mind. It’s proven that exercising your mind is helpful in staving off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Use it or lose it—keep your brain agile and fit by challenging it with crossword or Sudoku puzzles. Join (or start!) a book club. Teach your grandson chess. Sitting in front of the television does not qualify.
  6. Consider psychotherapy. Therapy is not just for “crazy” people. Millions of people of all ages, all around the world, turn to professional counselors to talk through their problems and to become more psychologically healthy. Therapists and support groups can be invaluable resources, especially during times of loss or other duress.
  7. Spend time with Mother Nature. We all know this intuitively: fresh air and sunshine are good for us! We were not meant to be cooped up inside all the time. Whether it means sitting outside in the courtyard for an hour, going for a leisurely walk through the neighborhood, or attending your grandchildren’s soccer game, get outdoors when you can. (And wear your sunscreen.)
  8. When it comes to treating health challenges, explore something new. As you’re probably aware, there is a whole host of alternatives to our familiar western medical model of healthcare. Often referred to as “alternative,” “complimentary,” or even, yes, “holistic” medicine, these approaches include acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, herbal remedies, chiropractic care, massage therapy, energy work (such as reiki and healing touch), and many others. I encourage my patients to have an open mind and explore possibilities. The documented medical research literature tends to support some of these therapies and dismiss others. Yet different people find that, according to their belief systems and personal experience, alternative approaches can be greatly effective. 

However, it is vital that you tell your doctor/provider the things you’re doing, especially when it comes to nutritional supplements and herbal or homeopathic remedies. Yes, these compounds are natural. But they still have side effects and interact with prescription medications. St. John’s Wort, for example, a popular herbal mood-lifter, interacts badly with prescription Coumadin. If you are taking Coumadin and decide to experiment with St. John’s Wort, you are likely to experience undesirable consequences. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to communicate openly with your physician.

Our “golden years” can be some of the best times of our lives if we are open and allow them to be. As you face your day-to-day challenges, remember that everything you do affects everything else. Even small steps in a positive direction can have a profound impact on your life as a whole. 

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