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Later Life Guide

Health issues and concerns of older adults: solutions, strategies, and support

  Coping with a chronic condition


Chronic conditions or illnesses need to be managed over time.

Chronic conditions and illnesses aren't one-time problems. 

Reach out to other people.

Social networks can be lifelines when coping with a life-changing chronic illness or condition.

Besides not closing off to friends and family, also consider reaching out to other people who are dealing with the same issues, for support, information, and advice.  

Treating chronic illness often involves many different health care professionals (both specialist doctors and primary care physicians, nurses and physician assistants, maybe also nutritionists, therapists, pharmacists, or alternative health practitioners). If possible, try to pull them together into a care team by letting them know if (when) treatment changes, or the chronic condition shifts.

It's too easy for a medical specialist to focus on only one aspect of complex health issues, which can lead to conflicts in care (for example, medications or therapies that cause problems in combination). Be sure to let everyone on the medical team know what medications are currently taken, what therapies are used or have been tried, and which medical specialists have been consulted. 

Use tools to get organized.

Most people with chronic conditions have to keep track of a lot - medication schedules, appointments, testing blood pressure or blood glucose, maybe regular therapy exercises, or diet and nutrition, and more. Dealing with chronic illness can feel like a full-time job sometimes! Using tools to keep track, whether they're simple lists or technological apps, can be crucial. You'll find more information about different kinds of organizational tools to help care for yourself or for someone else here.

Take note of changes.

Chronic conditions change over time. Some have predictable stages but others vary from day to day; either way, keeping track of changes is important for diagnosis and treatment.

Include emotional health care, too.

It might be no surprise that chronic conditions bring depression, anxiety, and stress. (But it might surprise you to learn that some medications for chronic illness can cause depression or anxiety as side effects, too.) Besides the links below, you'll find more information in the section When Depression and Illness Come Together, and other sections in our Later Life online collection.

Figure out what your personal "good quality of life" looks like.

Maintaining a good quality of life - the ability to accomplish our activities of daily living, and activities that we enjoy - often require extra care when living with a chronic condition. Health care has measurements to assess overall quality of life, but really, we all have our own priorities and ideas of what makes life worthwhile. When coping with chronic illness, it helps to focus on our personal definition of a good quality of life, within the limits of the chronic condition.

Figuring that out starts with learning more about the disease or condition, and how it is likely to progress. Ask your heath care team questions; look up more information (search MedlinePlus online), and discuss what you find with your health care team.

When you talk with your health care team, tell them what's important to you, and ask their recommendations on how to achieve it. Some kinds of therapy, tools, or adaptive technology might make a difference. There may be trade-offs in medications or other treatments that would make it easier to reach your goals.

Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do now (and later, when limits change).

And research what resources may be available to assist with your challenges to living well with your condition. Check out our online collection of Local Resources, and some of the other sections of our Caregiving Resources collection for options and suggestions.

Multiple medications can mean trouble

While too much medication, or too many different medications (both prescriptions and over-the-counter cures or supplements)can cause serious problems at any age, older people are particularly in danger from overmedication. A fall caused by side effects like dizziness or drowsiness is much more risky in a fragile senior, for example. Older adults are also more likely to be overmedicated (in 2022 it was estimated that one-third of all prescriptions went to people 65+).

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We are more at risk for overmedication when:

  • taking 5 or more prescription and over-the-counter medications combined on a regular basis (the definition of "polypharmacy");
  • seeing medical specialist(s) in addition to a primary care doctor, or have prescriptions from several doctors; 
  • are still taking medications that were prescribed in an emergency, in the ER or Urgent Care, or when in hospital;
  • are taking any medication to manage the side effects of another medication (including taking drugs to manage depression or anxiety that could be a side effect of another medication).

What can we do to avoid overmedication?

When someone is taking 5 or more medications on a regular basis, it's a good idea to ask for a pharmacy review at least once a year.

These sources offer other tips for managing multiple prescriptions, and recommendations for when a new prescription is added:

Taking vitamins, herbal or mineral supplements is a habit for many people, thinking that those are good for everyone to stay healthy -- but sometimes they can cause serious harm. More often, they are of limited benefit or not effective at all (except to the pocketbook!). Here are some evidence-based resources to help decide whether taking a supplement is a good idea for you

Better health is possible, even with a chronic condition

Ask for recommendations from your health care team on how to improve these aspects of living with a chronic condition.

Exercise - safely and within abilities - to stay as healthy as possible.

Note that some chronic conditions (like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or exercise-induced asthma) get worse with exercise, so it's important to discuss exercise tolerance and limits with the health care team.

Manage Chronic Pain       

Sadly, it isn't always possible to live pain-free with a chronic disorder. But at the same time, managing pain is essential part of treatment (and quality of life).

While we might think we should ignore pain, or just "get through it", in reality living in pain causes all manner of harm to our bodies and mental states, making chronic disease worse and has the potential to shorten lives. Especially if pain interferes with the activities of daily life, be sure to tell the health care team, and to advocate for pain management. 

An effective pain management strategy may require a combination of medications, physical therapies, mindfulness practices, and perhaps also nutrition and/or complementary or alternative medicine. It may take some trial and error to find the right combination.

When someone is not expected to recover from a chronic diseases or condition, palliative care (sometimes referred to as "comfort care") may be necessary. (This is not the same thing as hospice care. Palliative care is meant to relieve pain and discomfort at any point in the life span, not only at the end of life.)

Good Sleep is Good Medicine.    

The pain or discomfort of a chronic condition can make it hard to get a good night's sleep, but getting enough sleep can be one of the best ways to cope. See our webpage on Issues With Sleep for recommendations on how to get a better night's sleep.

Use Stress Management Techniques.    

The stress of living with a chronic disease can be crippling. It can be a vicious cycle, when high stress causes autoimmune disorders (like IBD / Crohn's disease, lupus, MS, rheumatoid arthritis), allergies (including asthma and exzema), diabetes, and many other chronic conditions to flare up or get worse. Being chronically ill can feel like having to "run the body on manual instead of automatic"; managing symptoms by lowering stress response can make that easier.

Mindfulness practices, movement practices (including yoga, tai chi, qi gong) can be powerful stress-busters. So too is any activity that brings pleasure: hobbies, social activities, being in nature, playing or listening to music, spending time with people or pets you love.

Multiple health issues at the same time

People of all ages can have multiple health issues at the same time, but the risk of multiple chronic diseases or conditions is higher as we age ( approximately 80% of people 85+ live with 2 or more health issues), bringing special challenges. 

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