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Ten ways to age positively

Dr. Jerry Gurwitz
photo/Jane Keller Gordon

By Jane Keller Gordon, Assistant Editor

Geriatrician Dr. Jerry Gurwitz’s challenge is to help his older patients maximize their quality of life. Longevity is not the ultimate goal.

“Successful aging is not defined by how long you live,” explained Gurwitz, 61. “It’s maintaining a functional and healthy lifespan that’s most important. A lot of people would trade living a shorter, healthier and more functional life, than living a longer life with multiple illnesses and impaired function.”

Gurwitz knew that he wanted to be a geriatrician before he started medical school. Growing up in Worcester, he enjoyed spending time with his grandparents. When he was in high school, he volunteered at the former Jewish Home for the Aged on Pleasant Street.

Today, he wears many hats: researcher, teacher and clinician. Among his many positions, he is chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School, and the executive director of the Meyers Primary Care Institute, which is a joint research and educational endeavor of UMass Medical School, Fallon Health and Reliant Medical Group.

As a researcher, Gurwitz studies potentially preventable problems that occur in the routine use of medications in older adults in different clinical settings, including nursing homes.

As a clinician, he sees many patients who are living with multiple complex medical conditions, along with functional impairment, diminished cognitive ability, and limited supports. Many of these geriatric patients take numerous medications that may interact, producing difficult side effects and increasing healthcare costs.

“When I was training to be a geriatrician, one of my professors taught us that if you’ve seen one older person, you’ve seen one older person. People are so different and you can’t generalize about the effects of aging,” Gurwitz said.

“In the past, whether you were rich or poor, if you became functionally impaired, the only option was a nursing home or your family had to be totally committed to you,” Gurwitz said. “It’s better now that there are so many different options available, including a variety of home care services, assisted living, and Programs of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) like Summit ElderCare, to name a few.”

As for successful aging, Dr. Gurwitz emphasizes 10 things to maintain good health:

  1.  Exercise regularly.
  2. Eat well.
  3. Get a good night’s sleep, but don’t expect to sleep as long as when you were younger. Avoid sleeping pills and using alcohol to fall asleep.
  4. Don’t smoke (including cigars).
  5. Drink moderately, which means no more than two per night for a man, and one for a woman.
  6. Maintain and foster relationships with friends and family.
  7. Do something intellectually stimulating – take a course, attend public lectures, and read.
  8. Follow health maintenance recommendations like periodic screening for diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, breast cancer and colon cancer. Make sure to get the flu shot and immunizations against pneumonia.
  9. Help others.
  10. Be an engaged member of your community.

Now that Gurwitz is approaching the age of many of his patients, he said, “I see them as my peers. I just need to make sure I start following all the advice I give to my patients.”

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