Using Complementary and Integrative Health As We Age


I’m getting older, no doubt, and as I have aged I’ve faced health issues that many of you have also faced. Health and illness are just part of life, and coping with the changes is something I work hard at. I’ve had breast cancer, skin cancer and a few years back, removal of my thyroid and parathyroids.  Dealing with these health challenges hasn’t been easy, but as a nurse and as someone who has worked with ovarian cancer patients for 35+ years, I have learned about coping, and I also know that living in the moment and getting the most out of health is so very important. I’ve learned this from my work, but mostly from my ovarian cancer “friends”. They are living models of how to enjoy life and how to cope with health and illness at its absolute worst times.

Empower yourself toward wellness

When I faced the breast cancer, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect since I had cared for many oncology patients.  I did not know what to expect when I faced hypoparathyroidism though. Oh my! Living without calcium has been a challenge, but determined to feel normal, I sought out integrative medicine when I just couldn’t seem to feel better. I couldn’t cope with the tremors, fatigue, and sometimes the inability to even get out of bed, and believe me, I was really working at it. I didn’t know where to turn. Traditional medicine had failed me miserably and pills were not the answer.  What I learned has been invaluable for my health…and I regret that I hadn’t listened to my ovarian cancer friends, because they know what it means to empower yourself toward wellness!

So I thought I’d share a bit about what integrative medicine and complementary therapies are, because there are some misguided interpretations out there. First, Dr. Josephine Briggs (2015), the Director for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institute of Health, explains why many older Americans are using integrative and complementary health approaches.  Empowering yourself to try different approaches to health is liberating!  She states:

Image of senior woman practicing yoga

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“Complementary health practices are a diverse set of medical and healthcare practices and products with roots outside mainstream healthcare, but used together with standard care.”

It’s important to emphasize that “complementary” means “in addition to” standard care, which is much different than alternative care which is using treatment that is instead of standard care. More and more hospitals and nursing homes, Dr. Briggs share, are using complementary therapy.  Hospice has been a leader in this in my experience, using acupuncture to treat pain and nausea and such things as touch, reiki, massage, and music therapy to name a few.

I was skeptical at first, trying essential oils in the beginning, and now venturing into the world of exercise (most can’t believe I exercise) and Yoga, and more mind-body approaches to my health.  I couldn’t go without medication to control the hypoparathyroidism, but the complementary use of yoga and essential oils, for example, are truly beneficial toward well-being and relief of pain from muscle spasms and for anxiety.

35-50% of patients are using complementary approaches

Complementary approaches are receiving more attention in the medical community and it’s estimated that 35-50% of patients are using them, with women leading the pack.  Such practices as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, meditation and, the most frequent, dietary supplements, such as multivitamins and vitamin and mineral supplements, are being used. Caution should be exercised with the use of dietary supplements though because clearly there are documented interactions between some products and conventional medicine.

Consumer Reports, in their July edition, identifies 15 supplement ingredients that may be harmful, such things as green tea extract, and have identified the side effects that have been reported. It has long been known, for example, that St. John’s Wort, an anti-anxiety supplement, can interact with commonly used medication like Digoxin or Xanax, so it is important and necessary to always let your primary provider know what supplements you are taking.

You’ll feel better taking control of your health and you’ll learn so much.  Here are just a couple of places that you can look for additional reading about complementary and integrative health and medicine:

Believe me when I say that I have only scratched the surface of what is out there for you!  Be empowered in your aging and feel better! I sure do! And share with us below how you use complementary therapy in your practice or daily life.

Source: Briggs, J. (2015). Americans’ active quest for health through complementary and integrative medicine. Generations, 39(1), 56-64.

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