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Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What Seniors Need to Know

Today, different approaches to health and well being are increasingly teaming up for better patient outcomes. Here is what seniors need to know about alternative medicine. 

Conventional medicine tends to focus on symptoms (think of those commercials that promise “fast, temporary relief”). By contrast, complementary and alternative medicine focuses on cause. This form of medicine looks for where someone’s life is out of balance, which created the symptom in the first place. 

The Distinction Between Complementary and Alternative Care

Mainstream medicine is also referred to as allopathic or Western medicine. Complementary and alternative medicine or CAM, encompasses a variety of holistic approaches.

Widely practiced in other cultures, CAM has become more popular in the U.S. in recent decades. The government established the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1991, later renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

According to the NCCIH, the difference between complementary and alternative approaches is simple:

  • If a non-mainstream practice (such as chiropractic care or yoga) is used in conjunction with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
  • If a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”

Many forward-thinking medical practices now include complementary medicine as part of their menu of healing modalities. This combined approach is known as integrative health care. The National Cancer Institute even has an Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or OCCAM.

A Focus On Wellness, Not Illness

The conventional medical model typically views a patient by specialties. Thus, your family doctor may refer you to a cardiologist for a heart problem, an allergist/immunologist for your hay fever, or a gastroenterologist if you’re experiencing digestive issues. 

CAM takes a more inclusive approach, focusing on overall wellness. The words whole, holy and heal all derive from the same root. To a practitioner of complementary or alternative medicine, the whole person — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually — is the starting point.  

After an examination, a complementary or alternative health care practitioner may recommend a range of options, depending on the health issue(s), and may suggest a combination of modalities. CAM approaches include:

  • Traditional therapies that have been in use for centuries, such as acupuncture, Ayurveda (Indian medicine), homeopathy, and Chinese medicine;
  • Movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and chiropractic or osteopathic medicine;
  • Diet and herbs;
  • Mind/body practices such as biofeedback or meditation;
  • Energy medicine such as Reiki and qigong;
  • Expressive arts, such as music and dance.

Something as simple as bringing more plants into a senior’s home may make a marked difference in their well being. 

When Complementary or Alternative Approaches Make Sense 

It’s important to understand when to choose mainstream medicine, and when a CAM approach makes sense. 

Many seniors may be reluctant to visit the doctor. They’ve lived a long life and survived worse, they think, than a little cold or flu. Some seniors choose to get the flu shot as a preventive measure; some choose to ride it out if they get sick. But very few fear dying from it. And that may be part of the problem.

A “little cold” can quickly become a big deal in the elderly. Depending on someone’s state of immunity, the cold can escalate to pneumonia, landing a senior in the ICU, when the day before it was just an annoying cough. 

Much depends on someone’s current state of health. For example: a woman in her nineties had had a recent dental extraction, and was also suffering from an undiagnosed UTI, when she caught a cold. With her body’s adaptive responses exhausted — and the doctor visit delayed almost a week — her symptoms spiraled into pneumonia, and she was hospitalized, placed on antibiotics and a powerful steroid to reduce bronchial inflammation.

Another senior of the same age also contracted what felt like a cold. But he was healthy, with no pre-existing conditions, on no medications except for a mild blood pressure pill, and hadn’t been sick in years. He went to the doctor the day after he fell ill, and was given a prescription for antibiotics and a steroid as a preventive measure, as well as an over-the-counter cough medicine. 

He began taking the cough medicine, ate and drank lots of warm fluids such as teas and soups, and started feeling better almost immediately. He chose not to take the prescription medications since his illness was viral, not bacterial (antibiotics do not help a cold; that’s why it’s known as the cold virus and not the cold bacteria). It was a bit of a risky move for an elderly person, yet he recovered rapidly since no other health issues compromised his immune response. 

The Best CAM Practices for Conditions Affecting Older Adults 

According to NCCIH, clinical research finds CAM is well suited to certain conditions that are prevalent among the senior population: 

  • Osteoarthritis. The American College of Rheumatology conditionally recommends acupuncture and other non-drug approaches for managing pain and physical function in the hand, hip, back, and knee.
  • Sleep disorders. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. By comparison, tai chi was associated with improvements in sleep quality, fatigue, and depressive symptoms.
  • Poor balance/fall risk. Research shows evidence that tai chi may improve balance and stability in normal aging, and in people with neurodegenerative conditions, including mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
  • Osteoporosis. In a study of post-menopausal Japanese women, there was a positive link between drinking green tea and bone mineral density (BMD), which may help reduce bone loss and decrease osteoporosis risk.
  • Cognitive decline. Compared with a control group, older adults showed significant benefits in cognitive performance and memory from practicing mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi.
  • Hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Biofeedback and other relaxation techniques, such as meditation, have demonstrated a reduction in high blood pressure, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.

At The Kensington Sierra Madre, caring for the whole person is the essence of what we do. In addition to our premium assisted living and memory care, we partner with HealthPRO Heritage to provide a multidimensional approach to wellness for our residents. 

We invite you to call or come visit us soon to learn more!

Further Reading:

Memory loss is life changing for all involved. At The Kensington, we provide a state-of-the-art memory care program, a higher staff-to-resident ratio than industry standards, and more advanced care services. Our promise is to love and care for your family as we do our own.

For additional resources regarding your loved one’s condition, please read on about our Memory Care, Alzheimer’s Care and Dementia Care.

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