Your senior loved one wants to try an alternative approach that may help arthritis. You’re skeptical: can this holistic idea possibly work? And is it safe?
What follows is a primer on holistic healthcare for seniors, which also explains how an integrated approach to health and well-being can offer the best of both worlds.
The Difference Between Conventional and Holistic Healthcare
Medicine can be broadly grouped into two distinct categories. Conventional medicine is also known as Western, mainstream, or allopathic medicine. Complementary and alternative medicine, which encompasses a variety of non-Western approaches, is also referred to by the acronym CAM.
While you may not be familiar with CAM, it is widely practiced in other cultures, and is gaining ground in the U.S. The government established the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1991. In 1998 it was renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) before transitioning to the current National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in 2014.
The latest title more fully reflects its mission: “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and healthcare.”
The distinction between complementary and alternative approaches, according to the NCCIH, is:
- If a non-mainstream practice (such as chiropractic or yoga) is used in conjunction with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
- If a non-mainstream practice is used in lieu of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”
Mainstream medicine relies on empirical data to diagnose and treat what it defines as disease, and utilizes pharmaceutical and surgical approaches to correct the problem.
Complementary and alternative medicine refers to holistic approaches, which, while practiced successfully for thousands of years, often lack well-designed clinical trials that prove their safety and effectiveness. The NCCIH is sponsoring research designed to fill this knowledge gap.
Prevent or Cure? How Holistic Healthcare Views the Patient
Perhaps the greatest distinction between mainstream and holistic healthcare is the way in which practitioners perceive the patient.
In ancient China, for instance, prevention was a high art. Instead of going to the doctor when you got sick, people paid their doctor to keep them well. If someone became ill, payment stopped until the patient was again the picture of health. This is quite different from our current perception of health as the absence of any noticeable, definable disease.
Rather than focusing on symptoms, a typical holistic healthcare practitioner will look for cause: where someone’s life is out of balance, which led to the symptoms of pain or illness. Instead of seeing you as a collection of discrete organs or symptoms, the holistic health practitioner views the senior within the context of his or her environment.
When you work with a practitioner of complementary or alternative medicine, you will most likely receive a customized healing program, with health protocols selected for your specific situation and constitution.
An Integrative Approach
Today, a growing number of healthcare practitioners are integrating conventional and complementary approaches to create a more patient-focused medical practice. This is known as integrative healthcare.
A senior who works with an integrative health doctor might receive a conventional medical diagnosis, and then be offered a menu of both conventional and holistic treatment options. Using the most relevant mainstream and CAM protocols provides a more complete wellness emphasis that includes the mental, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of a senior’s wellbeing, in addition to physical health.
Holistic healthcare can range from something as simple as dietary changes, to meditation or acupuncture. The constellation of CAM approaches includes:
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (primarily acupuncture/herbs)
- Energy medicine
According to the NCCIH and the CDC, the types of holistic healing adults most commonly try are, in order:
- Dietary supplements other than vitamins and minerals
- Deep breathing
- Yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong
- Spinal manipulation (chiropractic or osteopathic)
- Special diets
- Progressive relaxation
- Guided imagery
It may surprise you to learn that some of the health practices seniors at The Kensington Sierra Madre have enjoyed for years fall into the “holistic” category. For instance, many of our residents love the way yoga improves their flexibility, and we’ve always promoted the many benefits of staying active as we age.
We also know how important superb nutrition is for senior health and well-being, and strive to provide delicious, nutritious meals made with the highest quality ingredients at every meal. Our Director of Dining Services, Dusko Novakovic, is always happy to accommodate special dietary needs and preferences.
What Conditions Does Holistic Healthcare Treat?
Holistic healthcare can be useful for many conditions for which a senior would seek conventional medical treatment. For example, The National Cancer Institute established an Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) in 1998.
People with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease frequently turn to CAM as part of an integrative medical approach, to help them manage symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Pain is the overarching reason people turn to holistic medicine: 55 percent of those seeking help suffer from back or neck pain, joint pain, arthritis, or migraines. CAM therapies have also been used to ease the suffering of people in a hospice setting.
If a senior is interested in exploring an integrative healthcare approach, the first step is to discuss your options with your healthcare practitioner.
Holistic Healthcare Takes Time To Work
It’s also vital to understand that holistic healing takes time. In Western culture we’ve become accustomed to “fast, temporary relief,” which often includes “quick fix” medications to dull or eliminate pain.
However, the hallmark of a holistic health approach is that it relies on the body’s wisdom to bring about healing, with assistance from the treatments being employed. Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, said, “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”
So if a senior chooses the route of holistic healthcare, it’s wise to take the opportunity to educate yourself about CAM, and how you can establish new ways of caring for yourself. Hopefully, you will soon be so committed to living in vibrant good health that it will be second nature to enjoy this new sense of well-being throughout your senior years.