Gussie S Secrets of Aging Well

“Newark Beth Israel is a place where I can get everything I need...Having everything in one location is so convenient.”

How do some people remain vital and active even in old age?

What accounts for the difference between a vital 93-year-old who is actively involved in life and a senior who is sedentary, withdrawn and enfeebled?

While some of healthy aging is genetic, certain habits and healthy practices make it possible to remain vital and vibrant as you age.

Suganthini Umakanthan, MD
Suganthini Umakanthan, MD

“The most important habit of healthy aging is positive thinking,” says Suganthini Umakanthan, MD, a geriatric medicine specialist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center (NBI).

“Negativity and worry create so much stress for seniors. They’re often anxious not just about their own health, but about the well-being of their children and grandchildren,” says Dr. Umakanthan, who is known to patients as Dr. Uma. “I focus on how important it is for them to think positively, breathe deeply and focus on one day at a time. My patients are often surprised at the difference their attitude makes in their lives.”

Busy and Upbeat

Dr. Uma’s patient Gussie Shepherd is a prime example of a positive thinker who is still involved in her community. Shepherd, 93, was born and raised in Newark and lives there still. She was married for 47 years and has a son and a daughter. She retired in 1992 from her position at a Newark bank.

“I always look at the bright side. I try not to allow negative things to even come out of my mouth,” Gussie says. “I accept what comes my way, say ‘It’s God’s will’ and make the best of every situation.”

Gussie has a high degree of social involvement, another essential component of healthy aging. She says she’s long known that helping others results in her remaining upbeat and engaged. “I’ve been treasurer of my church since 1987. Until I stopped driving, I shopped for my church and took other people shopping,” she says.

Known as Mother Shepherd, Gussie keeps watch over her neighborhood from her secondfloor sun porch and has been known to counsel local youth, who respect her advice.

“Not long ago, I asked a group of young men from my neighborhood to come see me. Some of them had criminal records and I told them, ‘You have to clean up your act. Someday you are going to have a legacy. What do you want it to be? What do you want your children to say about you?’ One is going to school to be an exterminator now. The other owns a car wash. If I can save one, I’m happy. When you are able to help others, it’s an extra blessing.”

How Healthcare Helps

It’s important for seniors to be in the care of providers who are trained in geriatric issues, Dr. Uma says. Because older adults often have more than one health issue, regular screenings are especially important. At NBI, seniors are able to access screenings and treatment for a wide range of conditions, including cancer, heart disease, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory illnesses.

Monitoring mental health is equally important in seniors’ care. Dementia, one of Dr. Uma’s specialties, often appears in tandem with depression, so screening for both is done at the same time. Cognitive decline may also be a result of malnutrition, deficiency in vitamins, such as B12, dehydration or untreated urinary infections.

Each of the senses should be monitored when screening elderly patients, Dr. Uma says. “We have to look at everything. Seniors may isolate and withdraw when they don’t hear or see well. Dental care is also imperative, since they may have trouble chewing, or experience gum pain or ill-fitting dentures. And podiatry care is important because overgrown toenails or bunions can impact mobility and gait, an important area for seniors in terms of balance and falling.”

Having multiple conditions affects the number of medications that elderly patients take, which can lead to side effects and interactions. “Every symptom doesn’t require medication,” Dr. Uma says. “I look at what my patients are taking and try to limit or eliminate medication when possible.”

The comprehensive, specialized services at NBI make it easier for seniors to receive care that is personalized for them. “There’s so much here,” Dr. Uma says. “Our physical therapy department can work on balance and gait issues to help avoid falls. Our rehabilitation department can arrange visiting nurse services for home therapies. And our social workers are able to prescribe housekeeping and companions.”

Gussie Shepherd agrees. “I love my doctor and nurse. And Newark Beth Israel is a place where I can get everything I need—my checkups, blood tests and vaccinations. Having everything in one location is so convenient.”

To learn more about senior health services at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, call 973-926-7000.