Senior doctor explaining heart to elderly patient

How managing chronic illness can help boost seniors’ health and wellness

Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. While almost 90 per cent of Canadian seniors have at least one chronic condition, one in four Canadian seniors between 65 and 79 has four or more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, arthritis, back problems and diabetes, as do 37 per cent of those 80 and older, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Better management of chronic diseases can have a big impact in preventing or reducing the potentially disabling complications of chronic diseases for seniors and improving their quality of life. For example, good care and management of diabetes can prevent or delay many serious or life-threatening complications such as blindness, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and nerve damage, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association.

Success in managing chronic conditions is often highly influenced by how the individual handles factors such as diet, exercise, taking medication as directed, and self-measurements, such as blood glucose and blood pressure readings, says the Canadian Institute for Health Information. The process of helping people to have the information, skills and confidence to successfully manage the physical and emotional effects of their chronic disease (or diseases) is known as self-management support.

Self-management support eases pain and disability

A mature woman grabbing one of her many medicationsEvidence has shown that self-management support can help many people manage their symptoms more effectively, according to the Health Council of Canada. For example, studies have shown that people with arthritis who received self-management support reduced their pain and disability. Diabetes patients also had better control of their blood sugar levels and COPD patients were hospitalized less often.

Doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, community health workers and disease associations can play a vital role in providing information, education and personal care plans to support seniors and their families in self-managing chronic conditions on a daily basis. Self-management support can also be provided through group programs.

Teaching seniors skills to manage chronic conditions

One leading example is the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program (CDSMP), which teaches individuals skills they can use to manage their chronic conditions in six weekly sessions. People with any chronic condition can participate in workshops, as can their families, friends and caregivers.

Versions of this program are delivered in 24 countries and in most Canadian provinces and territories. For instance, in British Columbia it’s provided free of charge in community settings, such as seniors’ centres, and condition-specific versions for people with chronic pain, diabetes or arthritis/fibromyalgia are also offered, according to the Health Council of Canada.

Chronic disease is Canada’s most important health problem, costing more than $80-billion a year, according to Chronic Diseases and Injuries in Canada. Self-management support helps seniors to medically manage their illnesses more effectively, carry out their normal roles and activities, and cope better with any emotional impact.