Living With Polio
Maintaining Health and Wellness
Good health is being the best that one can be – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally and socially. Polio survivors do not need to constantly struggle from one health crisis to the next. While some health problems require professional assistance, your loved one can manage others. In addition to seeing appropriate health professionals to alleviate and manage the late effects of polio and other unrelated diseases, another aim of you and your polio survivor parent is to improve their day-to-day overall sense of wellness and ability to participate in life.
Most of the ideas about staying well are the same for all people whether they have a disability or are nondisabled, but a wellness program needs to be personalized. One size does not fit all.
Not paying attention to safety issues can cause more suffering than many diseases. Remind everyone in your family always to use a seat belt. If there is a gun in the home, store it safely. With aging, problems with hearing and sight develop. Be sure the smoke detector batteries are working and that your parents can hear them. Increase lighting, especially on the stairs. Check your parents’ bathroom for grab bars and other safety devices, such as a raised toilet seat. Check all the rooms for unnecessary objects that may trip them and cause them to fall, such as throw rugs and electric cords.
Encourage them not to use tobacco or illegal drugs, to drink alcohol in moderation, if at all, and to practice safe sex.
It is vital to eat a healthy diet and to exercise to maintain strength, burn calories, decrease insulin resistance and prevent osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a common problem that may affect all people age 50 and older. Osteoporosis is an important issue for polio survivors because the polio-affected areas have less bone mass and weaker bones because of the lack of normal weight bearing. Polio survivors will fall more than often others. If they break their “good” hip or fracture an arm that they depend on to assist in walking with canes, crutches, or to propel a wheelchair, or for transferring, it will tremendously impact their lives.
Research has shown that calcium and vitamin D are important for strong bones and most people don’t take in enough of either on a daily basis. The current recommendation for adults over 50 is to take in 1,200 mg per day of calcium. Experts recommend a daily intake of between 400 and 600 IU (International Units) of vitamin D. Sources include sunlight, supplements or vitamin D-rich foods such as egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver and fortified milk. The Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 2,000 IU per day. However, sometimes doctors prescribe higher doses for people who are deficient in vitamin D.
To stay in the best health, polio survivors should see their primary care physician regularly for preventive care. This visit should include measurement of height, weight, cholesterol and blood pressure.
Preventive care includes age and sex specific considerations, such as testing for colorectal cancer for people age 50 or older. For men, it is advisable to have prostate tests and possibly the blood test PSA (prostate specific antigen) done. Women need to have breast exams, mammograms, pelvic exams, Pap smears and discussion of the pros and cons of hormone replacement therapy. More and more physician’s offices have examination tables that raise and lower to accommodate those in wheelchairs or with mobility problems.
Their family physicians will monitor adult immunizations, such as diptheria/tetanus once every 10 years, and for persons with respiratory conditions, and/or age 65 or over, a pneumonia vaccine. One pneumonia shot is good for at least 6 to 10 years. Ask about the shingles (herpes zoster) vaccine if your parent had chicken pox. The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) causes chicken pox and because it remains in the nervous system for life, it can cause shingles. Polio survivors should get the annual flu vaccine, unless there are reasons not to, such as an allergy to eggs. There has been no research to suggest that polio people should not have a flu vaccine or a shingles vaccine based on the fact they had polio.
Your parent’s primary care physician and/or appropriate health care professional will be able to offer advice on all of these important issues.
Being well includes good mental health. Sometimes physical problems overshadow mental health issues, such as the anxiety disorders, manic-depressive illness, eating disorders and depression, because they are more easily discussed and more accepted by society. Addressing these issues will have an impact on the health of your loved one and on the family unit.
Surveys, interviews and books telling life stories reveal that polio survivors, in general, credit their acute polio with building character and developing the habit of working hard. It also taught them to appreciate others and increased their awareness and insights contributing to their spiritual growth. The literature notes a minority who clearly express that having had polio is the cause of their bitterness and pain.
The changes that inevitably come with aging can lead to social isolation. Thinking back about the polio experience can be emotionally upsetting. Both social isolation and emotional reactions to the late effects of polio are common. Post-polio support groups that meet face-to-face or online can help, as well as individual and family counseling.
Excerpt from PHI’s “Post-Polio Healthcare Considerations for Families and Friends.” © 2010