Mixed in with all of the good things that can occur during the golden years – such as retirement (for those who choose it), grandchildren, and the opportunity to explore new interests and hobbies – is the probability of acquiring some illnesses, injuries, or conditions that will result in spending some time being a patient. Nobody studies or plans to become a patient. While some seniors have more preparation than others because of earlier health problems, experience at being a patient does not guarantee mastery of the art of being a patient. In working with large numbers of headache patients of all ages, I have identified some principles that can make the patient experience be one of growth and development – even if it’s not a lot of fun.
1. Don’t let your illness or condition be the central part of your self-definition. Think of the various roles that you play which may include being a spouse, parent, worker or former worker in a specific career, lover of art or music or sports, reader, gardener, etc. You also may be a patient, but that isn’t all that you are.
2. Always plan and look forward to doing things despite your limitations. If your headache or ulcer or arthritis, acts up, you may not be able to follow through with your plans, but don’t let inactivity be the default. There is a great difference psychologically between expecting to be active and expecting to be sick. Too many times, I’ve observed people doing nothing on a day when they have felt pretty good but had nothing planned – leaving them with plenty of time to think about their illness or condition.
3. Get excited about figuring out new activities that you can do despite your limitations. Make it a challenge, and then take pride in your accomplishments. The internet offers opportunities to learn skills and develop interests without expending a lot of energy and money, and it offers opportunities to get involved with others who share your interests. Volunteering can be a rewarding way of using your skills and background without the time commitment and schedule required for a full-time job. Volunteer work that helps others can take your mind off your pain and make you feel less like a patient.
4. Never stop asking, “What can go right?” Time is on every patient’s side, as new medical breakthroughs are occurring all the time. Stay alert to new discoveries in the medical field, and when you hear of something, ask your doctor whether you are a candidate for any new medication or procedure or non-medical treatment that is in the news. Be an active partner in your own care.
5. Guard against low frustration tolerance. You body may not be on the same time table as your mind. Improvement may not be happening fast enough for you, and it certainly is reasonable to question your physician about your progress and expectations regarding your course of recovery. But exercise some degree of patience. One of the advantages of not making your condition too central is that you have other things to think about and do while you may be slowly getting better.
6. With most illnesses, injuries, and conditions, it is best to ease back to normal activities when you are feeling better. Don’t go from nothing to everything – or you risk the chances of recurrence. You don’t want a setback if you can help it.
I have observed that patients who have an active orientation and stay positive tend to have good things happen to them. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a pretty good strategy for coping. I’d really be interested in hearing from you – particularly if you personally or through observation of others have learned something helpful about the art of being a patient.