Health AreasNon-communicable Diseases

Will you need a geriatrician or gerontologist in your 60’s ?

Waitherero’s sharp mind and easy motion is nothing compared to her eight and a half decades of life. She is a mother of six and a grandmother to 14. Rehema, my friend from Mombasa, would describe her saying, ’amekula chumvi,’. Esther welcomes me with enthusiasm and a cup of sugarless tea full to the brim every time I visit her in our village in Murang’a. “Sugar is not good for young girls like you,” she explains every time.

Looking at her and listening to her stories, she has an echo of youth. She recollects her days as a young girl growing up on her father’s farm, getting married to Kinuthia and bringing up their children. The conversation is quite animated. In fact, I yearn to pull off the mask of age to see the person she was as a teenager at the end of the Second World War.

Once in a while as she shares the nostalgic moments, she rises with her aluminum kettle to check on my cup of tea. Then she shares a gem. “My back aches once in a while, but I am a small girl no more,” she says. Every day, she thanks God for bringing her to the golden years.

Dr Muthoni Gichu is a medical gerontologist at the Ministry of Health

The clock never stops.

Growing old is beautiful.

Yet to most of us today, growing old is one of our greatest surprises.

The view

In fact Ingrid Bergman, an actress likened getting older to climbing a mountain, “You get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!” She said.

But hey! No need to be fearful of greying.

Aging is not a disease; it is a normal and inevitable biological phenomenon. Aging is an individual process and no two people age the same.

Dr Muthoni Gichu, a medical gerontologist notes that today we are living longer due to improved medical care, improved diet and nutrition and general wellbeing. She is Kenya’s only medical gerontologist, a new area of specialization that focuses on taking care of persons beyond their sixties.

At the recently concluded Kenya Medical Association Conference whose theme was ‘Health across the lifestan: a focus on ageing’, Dr Gichu gave the key-note address and called for concerted efforts for more interests on healthcare for older persons.

Geriatrics and Gerontology

What is geriatrics and gerontology?

Gerontology is the scientific study of old age, the process of ageing, and the particular problems of old people whereas geriatrics is the medical management of older persons and this includes focusing on the healthcare of persons above 60 years.

Whereas these areas are fairly new, Kenya has one medical gerontologist and two social gerontologists. Dr Gichu is a medical gerontologist who loves spending her time taking care of men and women in their golden years. She believes that we should all be comfortable with growing older. The 2009 Kenya Population and Housing census estimates that there are about 2.9 million people above 65 years.

“We are living longer today than we did seven decades ago. However our healthcare needs should follow suit,” Dr Gichu said.

Aging is part of life

How you age, depends on two factors. “Your genes only attributes to 30 % whereas the rest is dependent on your lifestyle and the environment you lived in,” Dr Gichu noted.

Dr Gichu identifies that over the years, there has been a keen focus on child health to ensure children live to their fifth birthday and a further push for adolescent health and general health for adults until the age of retirement, at about 60 years. But who looks after you when you get to 60 years?

“We need to focus on the needs of persons as they grow older,” said Dr Gichu. And with the pace of population ageing much faster than in the past three decades, there has been a rallying call for countries to prepare for the demographic shift where people are living longer.

Here are some of the definitions on aging.

  • Aging- a natural process that begins at birth and ends at death
  • Chronological age- the number of years you have been alive
  • Geriatrics- focuses on diagnosis and treatment of disease common among older persons
  • Gerontics- nursing care and services provided to older persons with aim to safeguard and increase health and to provide comfort.
  • Ageism-dislike, stigma and discrimination of older persons

The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years. Some of the misconceptions of growing older is that after their 60’s, older persons are dependent. Dr Gichu identifies this as a myth. “Within the right environment, older people can make contributions to their families and societies,” she says.

Aging and Health

The most immediate health issues that affect older persons include;

  • Hearing loss
  • Disabilities
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease
  • Arthritis
  • Dementia
  • Loneliness
  • HIV/Aids
  • Poverty
  • Immediate health needs add geriatric syndrome

The WHO notes that as people age, their health needs tend to become more complex and a higher chance of having one or more chronic health diseases like diabetes, heart conditions, arthritis and others. Dr Gichu concludes that we need to have a health system that is sensitive to the needs of older people.

So, what next?

Until the last grain falls from your personal hour-glass, live life!!

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