Dealing with more than one chronic condition can feel like a full-time job. These tips can help you get your life back.
If you’re living with a health condition, you’re in good company. In fact, six in 10 older adults have at least two health conditions at the same time (a.k.a. comorbidities), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic kidney disease can layer on top of each other. That can mean wrangling multiple specialists, symptoms, medications, and side effects. It can feel overwhelming.
If you’re struggling to keep up, here are some strategies that can make it easier to manage multiple conditions.
Strategy #1: Remember That You’re in Charge
Too often, many older adults whose conditions are managed by providers view their conditions as outside their control. While your health care team does play a major role, remember that you’re the team leader, says Scott Kaiser, M.D., director of geriatric cognitive health at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in California.
“This isn’t just something that is happening to you. It’s an opportunity to take charge of your health,” he says. “Having that perspective is important, because it helps you be more engaged in treatment. This is a wakeup call for your health, and what you do will make a difference.”
Strategy #2: Set Meaningful and Specific Goals
Although coping with your conditions may seem like enough of a goal, it helps to put additional targets in place, says Michelle Ogunwole, M.D., an internal medicine specialist and research fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“As doctors, we need to know what’s important to you, and what would represent a meaningful goal for you,” she says. “Maybe that’s being able to pick up your grandchild, for example, or feeling less tired throughout the day.” Having a goal gives you something to work on step by step.
Strategy #3: Put Your Health Team Together
When you have multiple conditions, it’s likely you’ll be seeing several specialists. For example, you may have a cardiologist in addition to your primary care provider or geriatrician. But those pros aren’t the only players on your team, says Dr. Kaiser. Depending on your situation, you may also benefit from working with a physical therapist, nutritionist, social worker, cardiac rehab specialist, pharmacist, or other health professional.
That’s just your starting team. Dr. Kaiser says you can also include friends and family members, your spiritual advisor, or a therapist. There are also support groups that chat about conditions you share.
“All of these people are part of your team. They all play a role,” says Dr. Kaiser. “Seeing how much support you have and continuing to build that network, can be a huge part of navigating serious illness. It helps you see that you’re far from alone.”
Strategy #4: Get Guidance on Your Medications
One critical aspect of managing your conditions is making sure your medications are being handled effectively, says Donald Mack, M.D., a specialist in geriatric medicine at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“When you have several doctors and perhaps a hospital visit thrown in, you have more complexity when it comes to medications and potential interactions,” he says. “There is also what we call a ‘prescribing cascade.’ Say you take a drug for dementia, but it causes diarrhea, so you then get a medication for that. Pretty soon you’re taking numerous medications, each with its own risk of side effects and additional drug interactions.”
While you may not have a central computer system that checks to make sure your medications match up correctly, you do have an in-person resource who can do that, says Dr. Ogunwole: your pharmacist.
“These professionals are underutilized,” she says. “They can be a great resource for helping you sort out what you need.” Plus, a pharmacist can work with your provider to streamline your medications.
Strategy #5: Keep Good Records
Make a list of the drugs you’re taking, including dosage, and show it to your provider or pharmacist. But don’t stop there. Dr. Kaiser suggests using a simple notebook or accordion file folder to track everything, including your appointments, specialists’ names, advanced health care directives, test results, and more.
Some health systems have online patient portals, which can make it easier to organize your information, Dr. Kaiser says. Having all this data on hand can be part of being proactive for your condition management, he adds.
Strategy #6: Focus on Lifestyle Changes
In addition to medical strategies, don’t forget the simple habits you can practice every day:
- Keep stress at bay.
- Get your exercise.
- Sleep well.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Stay hydrated.
- Don’t smoke.
- Watch your alcohol intake.
Also essential is getting plenty of social interaction and finding a sense of purpose in what you do.
“How you live can profoundly influence your health and well-being,” says Dr. Kaiser. “That’s part of being proactive when you have multiple chronic conditions. It’s part of taking charge of your health.”
Dr. Kaiser suggests joining classes and groups, in person or online, to learn more about ways to manage your health. A class on healthy cooking or a fitness group, for example, provides not just activity but also social interaction. They may be covered by your health plan or even offered free by your local senior center or hospital system.
“You don’t just want to ‘manage’ multiple conditions. You want to be happier and healthier,” says Dr. Kaiser. “That should be your focus—to address your conditions in a way that improves your life.”
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