Illness as We Age: What’s in our toolboxes to help us heal?

We're getting older and much to our chagrin are we ever learning more about illness and how to cope. There are the typical daily aches and pains and then there are the real problems from broken bones and bad backs, to auto immune diseases and, heaven forbid, cancer. Dealing with illness, losses, failures, and disappointments can also stretch people’s outlook and spur them to do things they’ve always wanted. 

How you deal with a diagnosis has a big impact on healing. Do you shut down--go to bed, throw the quilt over your head and sulk in self-pity? “It’s my pity party,” Barbara said one day after she broke two bones in her hand and fractured her wrist. She was determined to keep it short. Do we recommend becoming proactive and asking every close friend what to do and then fielding their advice which can become exhausting? Or do we suggest reading everything online and worrying? Or here’s another route: Put total trust in your doctors, go with the flow, and then run out and buy the shoes or purse you’ve always wanted to make you feel better? Similarly, you could decide it’s time to get a facial, massage or join the gym nearby and start taking yoga or learning meditation? 

What you decide doesn’t matter but should make you feel more comfortable. The key is to do something since illness requires taking some action since it can derail the best laid plans.

A broken dominant right arm, like Barbara’s, put a wrench in her ability to type. To compensate, she asked her computer expert to install voice-activated software. She also learned to type with her left hand. And as soon as she could, she started typing with her right hand since her therapist said it was good therapy. 

Chemotherapy to fight cancer can be terrible—nausea and loss of hair—or not, but it’s also an opportunity to think, slow down, read and regroup. Perhaps, it’s good to alter your lifestyle, get your finances and estate in order, and learn meditation and ways to eat healthier and live stronger. 

As we age, we’re learning that many of our peers need knee replacement. If so, get it done by the best surgeon and do your rehab at your area’s top facility. Tackle it like a job, which it is. It’s important to take the down time to heal, get strong and then walk rather than run or tone down whatever aerobic exercise you engaged in before the injury. You want to heal as much as you can so you don’t have more problems. You might also consider swimming, which is said to be excellent therapy. And if you are overweight, you might also view the time as nature’s nudge to get you to shed a few pounds so you put less weight and pressure on your good and bad knees. 

Dementia is life changing but if you know this is beginning to happen to you, perhaps learn a new skill, if possible, or start digging into your long-term memory for good stories and either write them down or record them. Familiar music or foods may help boost your memory capacity. Margaret’s mother, who had dementia in her 90s, came to life when Frank Sinatra music was playing. Her memories would begin bubbling to the surface. And Margaret would start to ask her questions to find out all she could about family myths. Some questions still remain unanswered.   

Paying attention to Others’ Opinions. But we also know illness can bring on a stew of emotions and many unsolicited opinions from well-meaning friends and family. Some may even cross a boundary with their barrage of questions and suggestions such as: 

How long will it take to heal?

Are you doing to live?

Which doctor or hospital are you going to? I know a better one.

Did you get a second opinion?

What kind of treatment are you going to get? I know such and so and X might work better for Z. It did for me.

Will you be in pain? Here’s what I did. And be careful. Don’t get hooked on pain meds.

Are you going to have surgery?  

Will you have to quit work?

Is this very expensive? followed by…How much is it costing you out of pocket? 

And here’s where you can take charge. Decide if you want to respond, “Thank you very much for your concern, but I’d rather not talk about this. I don’t care to go into the details.” On the other hand, family and friends may ask how they can help, if they can drive you to doctor’s appointments, cook, bring over chocolate, chicken soup, or your favorite reading material. If you’re inclined do take them up rather than be stoic and a martyr. 

Going Online for the Latest Info. It’s a basic human need to want to understand what is happening to your body. Such knowledge might lead to a new treatment or clinical trial, a way to manage pain or better management of your condition. But here’s a big caveat. You may go online, gain misinformation and become upset. The flip side is that gathering information can offer a feeling of control over your illness and help you generate good questions to ask your doctor. 

Blowing your Budget. If you are ill, do you treat yourselves to something extravagant in the spirit of “you can’t take it with you” and take the trip of your dreams? Illness in this context can be a time to learn, grow and give. Or, you may decide to do something outside yourself if you have the energy, such as take a volunteer vacation or volunteer in your community? You can start now and surprisingly, it might help mitigate some of the effects of your illness. The key to bear in mind is that in most cases you’ll regain your health, so don’t overspend. Do something within your means. 

Having an illness sucks. However, it’s best to try to filter out the negative and invest most of your time and energy in establishing the moral, physical, cogitative and emotional foundation necessary to get better. Ask your friends, go online, take a trip—even a day or weekend getaway, buy that purse you’ve eyed forever or a box of expensive chocolates, delicious French Burgundy, or do a volunteer gig. Whatever makes you feel better. A positive mindset can be the best medicine of all. You’ll be glad you did.  



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