I have a special friend who attends a 1.5-hour exercise class at Penrose Hospital. Later that day, it's not uncommon for her to play nine holes of golf. She'll hike Garden of the Gods in the morning and conduct international business in the afternoon. She's 75 and seems to get younger every year. Another one of my friends hikes or walks at least 8 miles a day, works full time, has just been granted 501 (c)3 status for a new animal sanctuary in the area, and is probably, at this moment, firing up her chainsaw to clear out a fence line. She's 68.
They represent the spirit, energy, and resolve with which many seniors are embracing their 60s, 70s, and 80s - while quietly but resolutely shredding the unfortunately widely held myth that seniors are doddering, sickly, needy and frail.
Most of us, if we live long enough, will almost certainly become more frail. But not necessarily in our 60s, or even our 80s. Today's seniors are proving that. As a society, and in particular, all facets of the health care industry, must take notice and reframe our thinking.
The health care community has been as guilty as anyone of clinging to false perceptions, operating in ways that suggest that the existence of such vibrant seniors has escaped notice. There are, of course, many seniors who are frail and sick and who require extra attention, a great deal of medical care and the help of pharmaceuticals. And we need to make sure they receive what they need.
There are also seniors who are quite healthy, highly active, and willing to do whatever necessary to stay that way. The current generation should not pass on their dated perceptions of who seniors are. We must begin to accept them as individuals, meet them on their terms, and be willing to devise new and improved ways of dealing with them, not just jam them into a traditional medical care model. That model has been built upon stereotypes that largely diminish and dismiss seniors, a model that invites the system to (1) make assumptions about their capabilities, (2) tell patients what's best for them instead of working hand and hand to develop a plan based on the individual's needs and preferences, and (3) dispense pills as if there are no other alternatives. That must stop.
The media is filled with stories about seniors defying the stereotypes. Among them: Four years ago, Diana Nyad became the first swimmer to cross the Florida Straits without a shark cage - at age 64; Jack Nicklaus celebrated a hole-in-one at the 2015 Masters Tournament when he was 75; Nola Ochs became the world's oldest graduating senior when she concluded her courses at Fort Hays State University in Kansas at age 95; and Japanese adventurer Yuichiro Miura scaled Mount Everest at age 80 just four years ago.
But extraordinary feats among extraordinary seniors aren't really the chief point. The point is it's time for us - all of us - to extinguish the myth that the senior years are a period of shutting down.
In the medical community, that means no longer offering just "rescue medicine" - writing a prescription for an ailment when the patient is graying, when, in fact, many people are capable and willing to try different approaches. Maybe a remedy better than pills for a particular individual with chronic pain is physical therapy for a few weeks. And what about high blood pressure? It is known to be the most influenceable of any of the conditions that can often affect older Americans. Research has found lifestyle choices like reducing sodium, changing diet and exercise habits - and addressing stress with yoga or some other means - can have a profound and rapid impact on high blood pressure. Yet, how often do seniors with high blood pressure receive this information, rather than a prescription?
Our traditional system turns to the expedient thing - the thing we've always done, the thing that some percentage of patients require because of the level of their condition or illness - without regard to the specific senior before them.
Insurance plans, too, tend to support paying only for the traditional ways of dealing with sickness and conditions rather than giving seniors and their doctors the flexibility to, in situations where appropriate, try an alternative approach that might have a better, longer lasting impact with fewer potential side effects.
We are partnering with United Healthcare to take an initial stab this year at reframing the model with our Penrose-St. Francis Primary Care for Seniors Center. We'll be providing health care in ways that acknowledge the wholeness of the senior and his or her preferences for achieving wellness goals. We expect to learn a lot. It's a small step, but it's a beginning.
I want to challenge all of us to rethink the ways we approach and treat seniors. We can no longer approach seniors as merely an age group, but as individuals with varying capabilities and goals. Quite simply, we must extinguish the existing mindset.
And I call on seniors to expect better. The kind of critical mass that forces change can be achieved if you raise your voices each time you feel you're being pigeon-holed.
We in the medical community will have to revise our ways of doing things. It will be necessary to have navigators, coaches, social workers and a variety of other professionals to help guide seniors to the healthiest, most vibrant lives. That will be better for society, and it will, by the way, be more cost-effective in the long run.
Margaret Sabin is president & CEO, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.