Ageing gracefully

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, June 2013

Most of us are lucky enough to be able to choose our health destiny.

A few months ago the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation released an ad that’s both jarring and profound. On a split screen the video streams two very different scenarios for life in the senior years—one from the vantage point of robust health and the other from the chronic sickbed. “What will your last ten years look like?” asks the narrator as the actor laces up his runners in the left screen but struggles his foot into a slipper on the right. “Will you grow old with vitality or get old with disease?” Wheels roll across the screen, those of the actor’s bicycle on the left and his wheelchair on the right. Dinner on the left happens at table with family over a glass of wine; on the right the actor is in his hospital bed, unable to lift a styrofoam cup without help.

“It’s time to decide,” the narrator says grimly.

I think of this ad in the chilly minutes before starting my second Times-Colonist 10K run. It’s not yet 8:00 am and the skies are sulking, but more than 12,000 participants have gathered downtown and are buzzing with excitement. I’m surrounded by beautiful bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes. Giant speakers thump out a warm-up number and hundreds of balloons bob impatiently on the breeze. Then we begin surging forward and suddenly the start line appears underfoot. The race is on.

In many ways society is making it increasingly difficult to connect the dots between lifestyle and health, especially lifestyle today and health tomorrow. Messages like the one from the Heart and Stroke Foundation are drowned out by a million opposing sound bites that would have us choose convenience—blowing rather than raking leaves, for instance, and tasty packaged pseudo-food over whole foods that require a bit more prep work. We have become a people who drive everywhere and do everything sitting down. When faced with a health ailment, we find it easier to choose a quick medical fix over a long-term lifestyle change.

But on this late-April Sunday morning Victoria belongs to the runners and we are a river of energy flowing up Johnson Street, past traffic lights momentarily stripped of their jurisdiction but flashing defiantly nonetheless. Imagine a permanent, pedestrian-only corridor through the city that would pay dividends to both health and the environment every time it was used. Imagine doing all your errands and socializing on foot, and then being healthier for it at the end of the day.

Healthcare has become a huge, unsustainable industry in this province: It employs 10 percent of our workforce and this year will cost us almost $17 billion, about 42 percent of the provincial budget. And still it can’t seem to stop the steady erosion of population health; in fact it probably inadvertently contributes to declining health by siphoning from the budgets of other initiatives that play less direct but equally crucial roles in keeping people healthy. Think affordable housing, after-school sports and safer roads for pedestrians and cyclists.

The breeze picks up as we turn onto Dallas Road and now our chatter gives way to measured breathing. We’re on a long gradual hill and the halfway point is still ahead but the pipers, percussionists and rock bands help boost the adrenalin that carries us along. Well-wishers cheer and the Olympic Mountains are magnificent. Near Mile 8, a rainbow suddenly appears over the water.

It must be tough to be a healthcare provider, to tend to an unending queue of people who are mostly afflicted with the same preventable sufferings. While fate can be cruel and is mum on what’s in store for us as individuals, reputable research shows that 80 percent of cardiovascular disease and 50 percent of cancer cases are preventable. Type 2 diabetes need not happen at all. The major risk factors for all these miseries are the same: Smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, overeating, poor food choices and a contaminated environment.

I’m grateful for the finish line when it appears. And I’m thankful for the safety net of excellent medical care in this province. But I also realize that, barring some catastrophe, the long-term state of my health depends far more on me than on medication and the healthcare industry. Any vision I have for my senior years must start with choices I make today.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic salutes her running buddy and all-around source of inspiration, Willa, as well as illustrator April Caverhill who’s busy creating the dazzling outfit she will wear for the Goddess Run in early June (supporting four local charities). On Father’s Day, June 16, there’s a run/walk at Royal Roads to raise funds for The Prostate Centre of Victoria.