When we are young, we rely on our parents to provide most everything we need for a healthy life. As our parents grow older, that relationship begins to change. It becomes our job to make sure all’s well with the health and wellbeing of our parents.
The foundation of healthy aging: a whole person perspective
The foundation of healthy aging is working to maintain physical and cognitive function as much as possible. As a caregiver, be on the lookout for any changes or loss of physical, social or cognitive function. Any loss of physical function that cannot be explained by an injury or illness, for example, can be a sign of a potential problem.
We talked with Patricia Bloom, MD, Associate Professor, Geriatrics and Internal Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine about what you should be on the lookout for in terms of potential issues as your parents and other family members grow older.
“The first changes in function usually come in the sphere of social issues such as housekeeping, meal preparation, laundry, using the phone, and the like. Often the first warning sign that something may be amiss comes in the realm of finances. A parent may have trouble keeping his or her checkbook in order or forget to pay bills. Similarly, if your parent has always kept an immaculate home and you notice it’s no longer being kept clean and neat, that can be a sign that your parent may be experiencing some physical or cognitive issues,” she explains.
The keys to healthy aging
One of the most positive ways to stay healthy as we grow older is to remain mentally, socially and physically engaged. “Encourage your parents to do something they’ve never done before—learn a new language or how to play an instrument or take up painting,” suggests Dr. Bloom. “Activities can stimulate the mind and get them out into social situations that can enhance their wellbeing.”
Physical activity is also important. Walking is an easy way to get active. If your parents haven’t exercised recently, they should start slowly and try to build up to walking 30 minutes a day. If they have any health issues, they should talk with their physician to find out what type and intensity of physical activity is most appropriate.
Eating a prudent diet and maintaining a healthy weight are also cornerstones of healthy aging. Studies have found that a Mediterranean-type diet that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats such as olive oil and fatty fish like salmon and tuna can be a good diet foundation.
Managing increasingly complex health situations
It is important that your parents have a good relationship with their primary care physician, especially if they see multiple specialists. The primary care physician can serve as a point person, making sure care is coordinated. If your parents are frail and have multiple medical problems, a geriatrician can be a good physician to lead their care team.
Adds Dr. Bloom, “All of us want our parents to lead the healthiest and most positive lives they can as they face the issues that can arise as we age. By communicating openly with your parents, keeping alert to any signs of potential health issues, and forming partnerships with their physicians and other people involved in their care, you can be proactive about healthy aging.