By Kashka Kril-Atkins
Reprinted with permission from Vitality Magazine, March issue.
I woke up totally exhausted one recent morning, and realized why. I am a member of ‘the Sandwich Gener-ation.’ Statistics Canada’s profile of the Sandwich Generation fits me to a ‘T’: “individuals caught between the often conflicting demands of caring for children and caring for seniors.”
Social trends cited as contributing to this phenomenon also fit me to a ‘T’: delayed marriage, postponement of children, and (fortunately) long-lived parents. Add to that mix a burning desire to live a life that will make a difference, and a possibly unrealistic belief in infinite possibilities.
Yes, it is an exhausting experience shared by a growing number of Cana-dians. Census data released earlier this year indicates a tipping point is imminent, not just for Canada, but for many developed nations. Between, 2010 and 2031, the aging rate of the Canadian population will accelerate dramatically as baby boomers reach 65. In 2013, one in seven Cana-dians were aged 65 and over. By 2036, one in four of us will be a senior. The main factors contributing to the aging of Canada’s population are the nation’s “below-replacement-level” fertility rate combined with an increased life expectancy.
– The life expectancy for males was 69 years
– The life expectancy for females was 76 years
– The life expectancy for males was 79 years
– The life expectancy for females was 83 years
World Health Statistics
The WHO’s ‘World Health Statistics 2013’ report compiled and compared data for close to 200 member nations. The percentage of Canada’s total population aged 60+ was 20%, in line with the United States at 19%. The following is a glimpse into the lives of Canadian seniors:
89% – the proportion of seniors dealing with at least one chronic condition. Arthritis/Rheumatism is one of the most common, affecting 44% of seniors;
37% – the proportion of Canadian seniors aged 80+ who reported having four or more chronic conditions.
Despite the health challenges that seniors face, they demonstrate remarkable tenacity and zest for life:
37% – the proportion of Canadian seniors who reported having taken some action to improve their health (i.e. working out, losing weight, changing eating habits);
44.2% – the proportion of seniors who reported their health to be very good or even excellent;
88.8% – the proportion of seniors who reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with life.
My Father’s Story
This last statistic, that 88.8% of seniors indicated they were satisfied with life would have surprised me had I not spent the past year helping my 86-year-young father who remains high spirited in spite of living with Congestive Heart Failure. In adults over 60, this disease is the leading cause of hospitalization.
Born in the Ukraine, my father and mother immigrated to Canada following WW2. Like most of their generation, they suffered hardship and loss and learned to survive, adapt and thrive. My father is a hobby farmer and passionate beekeeper. He starts every morning with a glass of his magic elixir for vitality – the juice of a freshly squeezed orange and lemon, a heaping spoonful of honey, a dash of propolis and a generous sprinkle of bee pollen. His grandchildren have been watching him closely for years, expecting him to sprout wings and a stinger!
Up until a few months ago, my father defied the odds and was out amongst his hives lifting 50 pound “supers”, frames loaded with honey and capped with fragrant beeswax.
Unfortunately, along with the colder weather came a series of unexpected acute infections, testing his will. The winter months have proved challenging with a seemingly endless rotation of visits to the Heart Function Clinic, Emergency Room, and various specialists. He never complains and wins over every overworked nurse entrusted with his care. This is the spirit and resiliency of his generation.
There is no doubt that the allopathic medical system has lengthened my father’s life, but there have been frightening gaps in the system that require examination. Seniors are particularly vulnerable when it comes to these gaps.
Hospital and Home Care for Seniors Leaves Gaps
Seniors sent home from hospital, along with their families and caregivers, are often overwhelmed by discharge instructions, multiple medications, diet, follow-up tests and appointments, post-op and wound care. Given that 92% of seniors in Canada live in private households, often alone, the margin for error is great. Seniors are five times more likely to be hospitalized for adverse drug reactions (ADR) than younger people.
In Canada, over 50% of acute care hospital beds are occupied by seniors on a given day. One-third of those seniors will be discharged at a significantly reduced level of functional ability, which will greatly impact their ability to live independently. (BC Medical Journal) Hospital stays carry the added risk of exposure to iatrogenic (doctor-caused) illness. The authors ‘Prevention in acute care for seniors,’ an article published in the BC Medical Journal, sum up the situation this way:
“On the eve of a demographic shift, the appropriateness and quality of hospital care for older adults remains grossly inadequate. We cannot accept that loss of independence following acute care is just a part of normal aging. The common cascade of both physical and cognitive decline is frequently preventable.”
“In 2005, pharmacists dispensed an average of 35 prescriptions per person aged 80 or older, compared with an overall average of 14 prescriptions per Canadian.” ~ IMS Health Canada. Canada Rx Report 2005
“In 2011, one in two hundred seniors was hospitalized due to an adverse drug reaction (ADR).” ~ Canadian Institute for Health Information, March 2013
94-Year-Old Track Star
Our expectations that cognitive and physical decline are an inevitability of aging are surprisingly challenged in Bruce Grierson’s recently published book What Makes Olga Run? As he puts it “Aging is supposed to be one of those non-negotiables: just the cost of doing life.”
The subject of Grierson’s book, Olga Kotelko, is a track star at the age of 94. She holds 20+ world records and is going for more. A retired school teacher, she decided to take up competitive sport at the age of 77. A proud Canadian, she carried the Olympic Torch before the XXI Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver 2010. She’s been very obliging to medical researchers at McGill University, agreeing to a myriad of tests including a muscle biopsy. Turns out that she has the muscles of a 50 year old. Olga has great genes but even greater is her ‘can-do’ attitude.
Like my parents, Olga is of Ukrainian stock. Her morning elixir is Krakus, a Polish coffee substitute made from roasted flax, barley and beetroot. She is described in the book as a pragmatist with abiding faith in water, reflexology, and a ritual of massaging and stretching her muscles in the dead of night. (My father has a ritual of walking barefoot in the morning dew.)
In 2012, Olga was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Normally with osteoporosis patients, bone-building drugs would be prescribed to reduce the risk of bone fracture in a fall. Avoiding activities that might likely result in a fall would also be recommended. But Olga’s doctor was refreshingly open-minded in helping her deal with her diagnosis. He advised that there was no comparative data available to him on average bone density in someone over 90. He looked beyond Olga’s bones and saw the whole person. He advised her it was his opinion that she should keep training and competing. No drugs were prescribed, since Olga’s osteoporosis posed more risk for her long bones, not hips. Apparently osteoporosis medications may actually weaken the long bones. In return for his good advice, Olga gave the Doc one of her gold medals!
There is true inspiration in this story. Many people say they don’t want to get old. The witty rebuttal is usually ‘better than the alternative,’ meaning death. It’s time to rethink how we approach aging as a society and culture, especially when it comes to health care.
The Globe & Mail recently published an article on Sunnybrook Hospital’s solution to budget cuts and bed shortages. The hospital’s ‘Day 3’ initiative is aimed at getting surgery patients up and out quickly to free up beds. At first blush the initiative seems to make some sense, except that many patients have no friends or family available to take care of them at home. Community Care Access Centers (CCAC) are staffed with compassionate, competent nurses but they too are stretched thin. In the case of Sunnybrook, 5% of the hospital’s beds are taken up by what is unkindly referred to as ‘bed-blockers’ – seniors waiting for a spot in community hospitals, rehab and nursing homes. ER departments are bursting with cases that could be more efficiently cared for by a family GP, if only more Canadians had one. Imagine if a triage model could be developed leveraging the strengths of a truly integrative model, combining the best of allopathic and holistic medicine. It’s how I’ve modeled my Integrative Clinic and how I care for my own family.
Homeopathy ~ Gentle Healing for Seniors
I explain to my elderly patients that I chose to practice Homeopathic Medicine because there is virtually no condition which homeopathy can’t help and there is no risk of harm. The medicines are simple to use and affordable. They like that. They also especially like that there are no potential interactions or side-effects. For those seniors suffering with anxiety or dementia, homeopathy offers gentle healing. Many seniors with chronic conditions reach a point of no return where they are being prescribed medications mainly to manage the side effects of earlier prescriptions. Liver and kidney damage is commonplace. The more intertwined the symptoms of the various imbalances become, the more the individual is parceled up and out to various specialists. Each doctor, however competent, only prescribes for their anatomical or physiological turf. The risk is that no one is seeing or treating the whole person. This is the polar opposite of homeopathic prescribing. It never ceases to amaze me how a seemingly frail senior quickly responds to a well-chosen homeopathic medicine.
My father recently spent nine days in hospital. There was concern over the discovery of GI bleeding, especially since he was on blood thinning medication. He received exemplary care but by day six was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to get back home. His platelet count was dangerously low, below 5, and his body seemed to have inexplicably forgotten how to make more. We decided there would be no harm in giving homeopathy a try. Phosphorus was the remedy that matched his symptoms well, especially since in addition to the bleeding disorder, he had become quite hoarse and had difficulty speaking. He responded beautifully to the remedy with his voice returning virtually within 15 minutes of dosing. He also visibly showed more vitality and less anxiousness. When blood work was drawn that evening, his platelet count had increased modestly. He continued to improve on the days following. I like to think that the effect of the Phosphorus was like igniting his internal pilot light.
Natural medicine has much to offer seniors but homeopathy is unique in its compatibility with conventional medicine. The dilution method used to prepare homeopathic medicine makes it virtually risk-free and eliminates the danger of toxic interaction with prescription drugs. Since digestion is often compromised in elderly patients, homeopathic medicine has the added advantage of not needing to be absorbed through the GI system. Homeopathic medicine puts no strain on the liver or kidneys, nor does it cause constipation. In fact, remedies are very effective in restoring balance to the body, including optimizing bowel function. As well, remedies such as Hypericum can provide safe, rapid pain relief for acute nerve injury (i.e. dental pain, or trauma to the tailbone after a fall).
A homeopathic protocol preceding and following surgery can reduce anxiety, bleeding, bruising and inflammation and speed recovery. Remedies such as Arnica, Nux Vomica and Staphasagria have been used for centuries to help the body recover from the ill effects of drug therapy and surgical procedures.
A well prescribed homeopathic medicine not only restores the body, it calms the troubled mind and can prove highly effective in a vast array of concerns including Alzheimer’s, grief over the loss of a sibling or spouse, and insomnia.
Kashka Kril-Atkins is a homeopath and the owner of BLUEPRINT Wholistic Health Clinic, an integrative Medicine Clinic and Shop located in midtown. For more information please visit her website at www.blueprintwellness.ca or call (416) 932-3433.