As you age, your greatest health advocate is often the person staring back at you in the mirror. While preventive care and regular doctor visits are vital to your health, the key to much of your wellness rests in the hands of the doctor in the mirror — that esteemed, brilliant and intuitive authority figure we’ll call “Dr. You.”
Perhaps the single most important thing “Dr. You” can do to establish a sense of empowerment about the aging process is cast a “personal health safety net.” That meshwork is woven from the relationships in your life — family, friends, community, public and private services — and it’s the good doctor’s job to ensure that net is as rugged and strong as can be. What’s a net, after all, but a series of individual strands, each of which might not be especially strong on its own, that becomes more durable and resilient when sewn together?
The good doctor needs to be a tough-minded interrogator as he or she goes about constructing this net, because the process begins by taking a dispassionate personal inventory. What is the state of my health and what do I want it to be? What are the barriers that keep me from optimal health? What resources do I need and who can help me? Who is the best doctor for me and which is the best hospital? Am I too ill to be cared for at home or do I need more support? If I am a full-time caregiver for an aging loved one, could I use some assistance myself? If so, where can I find that needed support?
While everyone’s safety net will look different, we can all work off the same template. Imagine a dart board. If your home lives at the bull’s-eye, the ring around your home is composed of family and friends. Next comes your community, including neighbors and volunteers from your place of worship, civic and social organizations, etc. Finally, the outer ring houses public and private services, which are often provided by state and federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, and individuals and companies that offer in-home health care.
If you have a comprehensive safety net, your support system will remain strong even when one strand grows weary or frayed. Say your daughter is a working mom in her 40s who lives an hour away and can’t transport you to and from every doctor’s appointment. If you have a strong safety net in place, another relative, close friend, volunteer or health care professional will be there to help when your daughter can’t be.
Sometimes caregivers need safety nets themselves. Recent statistics show that 57 percent of long-term caregivers are in the workforce, adding significantly to their responsibilities. Many of these unsung heroes are forced to take leaves of absence from work — or quit altogether — due to the competing demands of career, family and caring for an elderly person. It is enormously important for prospective long-term caregivers to have honest conversations with others in the safety net. Can that person commit the time and energy the role demands? Is his/her home equipped for such care? Does he/she fully understand the illness and the care it will require? Some excellent resources for would-be caregivers include: the Family Caregiver Alliance, the National Alliance for Caregiving, the Full Circle of Care and AARP.
Public and private services are also essential to the integrity of your health safety net. By weaving them into your net, you can begin to take some of the strain off friends, family and loved ones. The Administration on Aging, www.aoa.gov, is a wonderful resource for locating government-sponsored services. Their mission is to develop a comprehensive, coordinated and cost-effective system of home- and community-based services that help elderly individuals maintain their health and independence. The Administration’s Eldercare Locator, www.eldercare.gov, is an especially helpful resource. Also check out the Area Agency on Aging, www.services4aging.org, to find local services in your area that can assist with grocery shopping, home cleaning and transportation. The National Council on Aging’s Benefits Checkup, www.benefitscheckup.org, is another good tool to help determine your eligibility for a wide variety of public and private benefits.
As you can likely guess, compiling a list of loved ones and organizations is just the first step in pulling together your personal health safety net. You also need skills, including the ability to talk openly and honestly about sensitive subject matter, an enormous amount of patience, and, ultimately, the ability to accept that having independence might not be synonymous with living independently.
What’s most important is recognizing the value and necessity of the safety net concept, acknowledging that you can’t do it all alone, and learning to accept caregiving support. Only when you’ve truly embraced this concept will your safety net be as rigorous and all-encompassing as it could be.