Health In Aging Blog


On Becoming an Older Driver

altshul headshotSara Altshul
AGS Staff Writer

I didn’t run right out and get my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, like so many of my high school pals did. In my rural hometown, a car was more necessity than luxury. Town was three miles away, school even further.

But my overprotective mom was reluctant to let me learn how to drive on her new manual-shift Saab. Instead, she chauffeured me wherever I wanted to go, and if I wanted to get somewhere when she wasn’t around, I walked or got a ride.

I finally got my license at 18, a few months before landing the coolest summer job of all time – as a Good Humor truck driver. Soon, I bought myself a $500 Simca, a tiny four-door French beauty whose battery was tied on with a shoelace. I had it for years before it literally fell apart.

Since then, I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles. Two cars I owned during my 40’s topped out at nearly 200,000 miles each. For the three years I lived there, I even zipped through the Italian countryside, up hills and through narrow, cobblestoned streets, in my second-hand, four-on-the-floor Mitsubishi. Coming to a stop on Tuscan hills in first gear took plenty of practice. Just ask my husband.

Thankfully, I’ve never had a crash and despite a speeding ticket or two over the years, my driving record is pristine.

I’m 66 now. My faculties are sharp and intact. But when I’m driving, I recognize that I have to be more conscious, more focused, and more alert than my younger self ever was. I exert a deliberate effort when I’m behind the wheel: I don’t pass as frequently, I don’t go as fast, and I don’t take chances like I may have done in the past. I am acutely aware of keeping myself, and my passengers, safe on the road. Continue reading

Older Adults Are Being Overlooked When it Comes to Mental Heath Care

dr-sewellDaniel D. Sewell, MD
Director, Senior Behavioral Health, UC San Diego Medical Center
President, American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry

(This blog post originally appeared on CareForYourMind.org, a resource created by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and Families for Depression Awareness (FFDA) to help society engage in critical discussions and decisions about mental health.)

For most individuals in the U.S., accessing mental health care is a struggle, but older adults may have it worst of all. Due to stigma, misinformation, and false beliefs about aging, they frequently go without adequate care for depression and other psychiatric illnesses and psychological problems. Too often, doctors offer prescription drugs as a cure-all solution, and fail to address the overall mental health and well-being of the older patient.

The truth is, addressing mental health issues in older populations requires paying more attention, not less. In aging adults, depressive symptoms can point to a physical illness, while physical pain or other physical complaints can often be a sign of mental health issues.

The good news is, when accurately diagnosed, mental health issues are just as treatable in older populations as in younger, but it takes commitment and understanding. In order to help aging Americans get healthier and happier, the system needs to properly address the physical and mental needs of these patients.

What gets in the way of patient-centered care?
Research shows that older adults are often less comfortable seeking care from a mental health professional than their younger counterparts. Due to historical shame and ignorance surrounding mental illnesses and psychological problems, stigma tends to be more powerful among those who came of age before the 1960s.

Depression is also experienced, witnessed, and treated differently in older adults. In this population, depression symptoms can present as physical complaints, irritability, and/or cognitive impairment rather than overt signs of sadness such as crying. Alternatively, psychiatric symptoms can often point to a physical ailment that’s been overlooked. Depression can also be an early sign of dementia.

Additionally, medical illnesses are too often misdiagnosed or wrongfully labeled as purely psychiatric illnesses. To test this theory, we did a six-month chart review in our geriatric psychiatric inpatient unit and discovered that 34% of patients referred to our unit had a previously unrecognized or documented but inadequately treated medical illness—and that illness was likely the source of the psychiatric symptoms. Based on that data, one out of three older patients may actually need medical care versus behavioral health care.

Insurance issues
Insurance companies also get in the way of good care. To cite one shocking example, a nurse employed by a continuing care community in my area was checking in on a patient. When she arrived, she saw the resident on the balcony, with one leg over the railing, clearly about to jump. Luckily, the nurse was able to pull the patient back. I was immediately contacted. When I tried to get pre-authorization for inpatient care from the patient’s insurance company, they told me she didn’t meet the criteria for care because she hadn’t actually jumped. Continue reading

Mama R: Living it up at 97

altshul headshotSara Altshul
AGS Staff Writer

Until a few months ago, my mother-in-law lived alone in the Brooklyn apartment building she’d owned for 40 years—“alone” only in a manner of speaking.

Over the years, her sons or daughters occupied two or three of the other apartments in the building; now, one son lives above her and another lives next door. Both look in on her several times a day.

At 97, Mama’s sense of humor is still sharp. Up until recently, she knew to the penny how much money was in her bank accounts. So when she forgets that she’s asked one of us the same question three times in 30 minutes, we all understand. She uses a walker to get around and still never misses a shower, wedding, or other family event.  A few months ago, 40 of us celebrated her birthday at a Chinese restaurant, at her request.

As her frailty became more obvious over the last year, we hired an attendant to look after her during the day. At night, one of her sons would usually have dinner with her (often, Mama cooked the meal herself), or her daughter would come by with groceries and prepared several meals for the week. We created a rotating schedule so that one of us stayed with her over the weekends.

But still, we worried. She’d nap much of the day, she kept the lights off (her thriftiness is a family legend) and she seemed to lose the zest for life that was her hallmark. Another hallmark? Her stubbornness. She adamantly refused to move in with any of us, despite the fact that several of us have homes perfectly set up to accommodate her. Continue reading

A Flu Shot is The Best Shot at Prevention for People 65 and Older

cdc-dj-vaccination-clinic_title-2Daniel B. Jernigan, MD, MPH
Director of the Influenza Division
National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For millions of people, the flu can mean a fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, and fatigue for a week or more. But did you know that if you are 65 years or older, you are at increased risk of serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia?

“People’s immune systems can become weaker with age, which places older adults at high risk of serious flu-related complications,” says Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer with CDC’s Influenza Division.

While flu seasons vary in severity, people 65 years and older bear a comparatively greater burden of serious flu-related illness compared to other age groups during most flu seasons. Data from recent seasons shows that between about 70 to 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths in the United States have occurred among people 65 years and older. For hospitalizations, this number is between about 50 and 70 percent.

This is why flu vaccination is especially important for people 65 years and older. While flu vaccine can vary in how well it works, there are a lot of scientific data showing that flu vaccination prevents illness and hospitalizations, even among people 65 and older for whom the vaccine may not work as well. A new CDC study published this summer in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases (CID) found that flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-related hospitalization among people 65 to 74 years by 61%. Vaccinated people 75 and older were similarly protected (57%).

Continue reading