Health conditions

Participants experienced a wide range of health and illness conditions which ranged from mild pain and age-related chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, to heart attack, stroke, cancer and near-death experiences.

Participants experienced a wide range of health and illness conditions which ranged from mild pain and age-related chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, to heart attack, stroke, cancer and near-death experiences. For the people we spoke to, however, health was not defined by disease (see Health and wellbeing); nearly half of the participants said they were in good health despite the pain, physical restriction and numerous other conditions they dealt with on a daily basis.

Denis has severe mobility restrictions and says he is ‘wrecked but healthy’.

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Fred has had numerous health conditions but is in little pain. He feels lucky to be in such good health

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Dorothy gets severe back pain but feels she is very healthy compared to some of her friends.

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The most common health issue participants spoke about was arthritis. People had arthritis in their back, hands, legs, knees, neck and all over their body. Despite the pain arthritis caused, it did not stop people from living full and rewarding lives.

Kaye describes what it is like having rheumatoid arthritis. She says it is frustrating but refuses to let it rule her life.

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Many people experienced pain, which ranged from general aches and pains associated with ageing, to severe and debilitating pain which limited mobility. People spoke about pain as something that they could ‘put up with’, ‘work through’ or ‘deal with’.

Sometimes Sabihe cannot breathe the pain is so bad, however, she keeps going and does not let it get her down.

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Lan has pain in several parts of her body but feels she can deal with it.

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Participants took many types of medication for various health conditions, most commonly blood pressure, cholesterol and blood thinners. Several people said they did not like to take pain relievers. The reasons they gave for avoiding pain relief were side-effects, the risk of becoming dependent, not wanting to take drugs; and there were other ways of overcoming pain such as staying mobile and diverting your attention.

Kaye prefers not to take pain relievers for her arthritis because she does not like to take pills and feels she can overcome the pain in other ways.

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Lois has arthritic pain through her whole body but she only takes medication when the pain gets very bad.

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Diminishing eyesight was noted as another major problem associated with ageing. This ranged from having difficulties reading small print (see Technology: Val) to having cataracts, glaucoma or being blind (see The ageing body: Tonia & Michael).

Several people had had heart attacks and heart bypass surgery. Gypsy said he took his triple heart bypass surgery in his stride and found his family were more worried about it than he was. Earl has had two quadruple bypass operations and found them difficult to recover from.

It took Earl months to recover from his two bypass operations but he would have another one if he needed it.

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People who spoke about sore hips mentioned how debilitating this was for their mobility. Those who had undergone hip replacements were relieved to be free of pain and able to be much more active.

Marlene has had a double hip replacement which she says has given her back 20 years of life.

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Other common health problems that people mentioned were knee injuries and joint replacements; broken bones which took a long time to heal; diminished hearing; breast, skin and prostate cancer; teeth being removed; strokes; hernia; gout; ulcers and many more. People responded to these afflictions in various ways. Some people were annoyed because they were unable to do things, some were angry at their diagnosis, and others became depressed. Len described how he has turned to alcohol since being hit by a series of health problems.

Len feels he is not mentally strong enough to cope with ageing and all the health problems this has brought.

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A far more common response to illness and incapacity, however, was to accept the situation and get on with life. This was true for minor irritations associated with ageing (see The ageing body) as well as more serious disease diagnoses.

When Sabihe was told she had breast cancer she was calm and thought she would find a way to deal with it. Her doctor interpreted this as her not understanding the diagnosis.

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After Shirley had another stroke she wondered how she would cope. She found it helpful to take life one day at a time.

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Some people we spoke with had been moribund and close to death, but had recovered. Two people had their bowel perforated during an operation, Jack had ruptured ulcers and Des had a life threatening blood infection. When speaking about their near-death experience, people talked about the impact on their family and their fear of having the same thing happen again.

Len went into the hospital for a check-up, was sent to emergency and almost died twice. The doctors told his family he would never walk or talk again.

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After contracting meningococcal septicaemia Des almost died. Being a driving instructor, he is now worried when people cough in the car.

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Brian H contracted septicaemia and golden staph after an operation. He describes what he remembers when he was unconscious.

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For people who were experiencing significant health problems ‘hope’ was important. Some looked to God, others looked to doctors or allied health professionals for effective treatments and yet others felt it was important to be more informed by searching for information on the internet (see Technology).