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Planning Retirement Online

Guide to living with ill health in later life

Part 2 - Looking after yourself

Guide to Ill Health - links

When we become ill some of us often can’t see the point in worrying about our overall health. We may not have the motivation to do things we used to do. For others, illness is a real wakeup call to try to get healthier.

There are a number of practical things we can do that can help to alleviate symptoms and delay progression of disease. The choices we make now should be on those things which will aid repair and recovery of our system. This is particularly important following difficult or aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy, or following surgery.

The Guide to staying fit and healthy gives the essentials behind staying physically active, eating well and being proactive about our health.

Staying Physically Active

Woman exercisingIn a 2008 survey 73% of over 65’s gave poor health as the reason for not doing any exercise. Understandably we might worry about falls particularly if we have osteoporosis or osteoarthritis. However, studies show that these and other conditions are helped by doing appropriate exercise. Importantly exercise can improve balance, strength, gait, muscular power, blood pressure, endurance and bone density. As well as helping our condition, there are often psychological benefits in knowing you are more in control and social benefits if you do fitness or movement with a group.

The Taking Exercise page, in our Guide to Staying Fit and Healthy, explains the different aspects of physical fitness and how to get started. Start gently, do a warm up, pace yourself, and enjoy what you do. Don’t let your condition be the excuse to do nothing. The key thing is to work within your limits, take advice from your GP about what is best for the stage of your condition, or follow the exercise routine you have been given by your occupational therapist, physiotherapist or specialist.

A number of organisations such as Extend focus on movement and exercise for specific groups or conditions. Conductive Education is a charitable organisation providing services to people with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, strokes, cerebral palsy and neurological conditions resulting in movement problems. Check with your GP, specialist or support organisation to find out what is recommended for your specific condition.

You may also find the Home Exercise and Rehab series by Pilates Practitioner and Registered Osteopath Gina John useful. Gina has spent many years offering help and advice, especially to the over 50 age group


A number of factors can influence our nutrition in illness and later life. We are less able to absorb nutrients efficiently and some drugs can interfere with absorption. Additionally some conditions can place greater nutritional demands on us.


The Eating Well page gives advice on following a well balanced, healthy diet. The following two sites provide a succinct easy to read overview of what nutrients the body needs to repel illness and infection and to stay as healthy as possible:

BBC - Is this the ultimate healthy meal?

Age UK - Healthy Eating Overview

There are times we just don’t feel well enough to prepare a meal. Hopefully there is someone who might make a batch of stew, pasta sauce or other dishes to freeze in individual portions so they're ready to heat and eat. Alternatively there are companies who do “farm fresh” ready frozen complete meals. You can check the web to see if there are any in your area.

If you have difficulty with food preparation there are many gadgets and utensils which might help, from jar openers, kettle tippers, pick up equipment, to talking microwaves. See the Independent Living page.

If you have problems swallowing, or think you might need help with nutrition, talk to your GP, specialist or nurse.

Our Health A-Z Diet and Supplements has information and ideas on the benefits of particular foods.

Boosting the Immune system

As we age our immune system becomes less efficient. Some conditions and treatments also weaken our immune system leaving us prone to more infections, inflammatory diseases, and other problems. There is some evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies (for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E) alter the immune responses. A well balanced diet (see eating well) will ensure we have these necessary micronutrients. Because the immune system is complex the medical experts say trying to boost the immune system with a lot of different supplements doesn’t work. Talk it over with your GP if you are not sure. Your lifestyle can affect your immune system. Try to get enough sleep and rest, and where possible avoid exposure to infection.

If you have a compromised immune system due to cancer treatments or other conditions you might find it helpful to read the Macmillan guidance on “Avoiding infection when you have reduced immunity”.

The Up and Downs

When you become ill it is likely that your energy levels will become low. There will be days when you feel able to cope, and take charge of your condition. Sadly there may be other days when you can feel dispirited, exhausted, or weak. The battery can feel flat.

Remember the days when you seemed to run on 100% energy the whole time? One of the things about getting older is that we don’t maintain these high energy levels. Illness and pain can have a profound impact on our energy level. Yet so often we carry on trying to do all the things we used to do before we were ill. On days where you feel you have very limited energy, say below 40% on the graph above, you might need to ask for support from others to get through, just as a flat battery needs a jump start. The biggest obstacle is usually that we don’t adjust our expectations of ourselves.

If, however, you have a number of black days and find it difficult to raise your spirits, it is important to tell your GP or specialist. Some conditions and medications potentially have depression as a side effect, and early intervention can greatly help.

Click to continue to the next section on: 'Understanding your condition'

Disclaimer: As with any health related information, you should consult your medical practitioner or other healthcare professional to ensure any item mentioned here, or on sites we link to, is relevant for you. Although we make every effort to ensure the accuracy of information we present we make no warranty as to its accuracy and we have no control over and make no warranty over information presented on sites we link to.

This Guide is written by Retirement Specialist Beth Campbell supported by members of the LaterLife team. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

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