Do you ever look at two people side-by-side and wonder how they are the same age? I can certainly point to a 72-year-old who takes medication for arthritis, an enlarged prostate, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and hypothyroidism, who beats me regularly in a game of mixed doubles tennis. I can also tell you about an individual of the same age with the same list of diagnoses who needs help to safely manage his or her household.

Assessing the individual

Sometimes older patients feel like the picture of their well-being is painted by the number of diseases they have or the number of medications they need. It’s true that having specific medical diagnoses such as heart failure or diabetes is the most common way to decide whether someone receives additional services, like a health coach or transition manager. But there’s more to it than that.

I’m an advanced practice gerontological specialist, a health care provider who is an expert in the care of older adults with complicated health care needs. Nurses like me use our knowledge and experience to think ahead for the needs of our patients, and deliver appropriate care to improve their quality of life.

“All nurses understand that you have to look beyond the disease at the whole person to understand how each person responds differently to an illness.”

Defining functional ability

At some point in everyone’s life, the ability or inability to take care of yourself is much more of a problem than the disease or diseases that caused the disability. Many of us see this as we age or take care of family members. For example, it’s not so much the “fall risk” from a numb foot that’s the challenge—it’s the inability to drive and the loss of independence that results. Nurses describe your ability to care for yourself as your functional ability.

A change in your functional ability is not about one disease or one injury. There are many complicated pieces of our lives that are the difference between still playing tennis and barely being able to stay home. Your age, income, genes and the support you have at home or in your community and more play a role in how your health progresses.

All nurses understand that you have to look beyond the disease at the whole person to understand how each person responds differently to an illness. Nurses who specialize in the care of older adults see this every day, and it becomes increasingly important for conditions that are chronic and incurable.

Particularly equipped

The surge in the population of people 65 and older requires a number of social changes including employment models, housing and transportation. The delivery of health care must be included in those changes because the way an older adult defines health is different from the typical health care system’s definition.

Who better to meet the evolving needs of our aging baby boomers than nurses who dedicate their professions to the care of older adults? I’m proud to join my fellow nurses in helping people get from one stage of their life to the next, in the healthiest way possible.