Older adults also need to be on the lookout for
medication side effects, which can sometimes be
hard to identify. Certain drugs taken for other
conditions can have side effects strikingly similar to
MS symptoms. For example, the statin drugs used
to lower cholesterol levels can cause leg weakness
and difficulty walking.
Even though MS manifests differently in each
person, it can be progressive over time. People in
their 50s and 60s who have had MS for many years
will sometimes find that their symptoms are worse
now than when they were in their 20s or 30s. That
may be especially true for walking and balance issues.
Even people who don’t have a chronic disease find
they can’t be as active at age 50 or 60 as they were at
20 or 30. For people with MS, the fatigue and energy
drain that comes with age is magnified. Just making
it through the day can require life modifications.
“I can definitely say it’s gotten worse,” said Lisa
Richey, 53, an independent business owner from
Lake Waccamaw, N.C. Since she was diagnosed 20
years ago, Richey’s legs have weakened to the point
that she now uses a cane.
Napping is an essential part of Richey’s daily routine.
“I sleep for 15 to 20 minutes about every 90 minutes
or so. When I can do that, I find that I can better
focus and make it through the day,” she said.
Jaros carefully schedules her life. She packs all of her
errands into the mornings, when she has the most
energy. Even then, she makes only as many stops as
she can handle. “I’ve just learned what my limitations
are and what I can and cannot do,” she said.
Pacing daily activities is just one way to adjust to
aging with MS. Sleeping better, exercising and
managing mood are other effective tactics for
improving quality of life as people get older.
Exercise is an important part of staying healthy
with MS. Yet it can be hard to remain active with
constant weakness and walking problems, not to
mention the persistent fear of falling. “I think there
can be a natural tendency for people with MS who
have some disability to not stay physically active,”
Dr. Bowling said.
But those who do exercise often find that it improves
their physical conditioning, which can have a positive
impact on their MS. Jaros said doing armchair yoga
has improved her flexibility. Carol More, 64, said
her daily exercise regimen has helped improve her
strength, flexibility and balance.
More also relies on alternative therapies such as
acupuncture and massage. “The massage helps with
the stiffness,” she said. “The acupuncture helps
with pain, spasticity and my energy level.” These
treatments not only help relieve her MS symptoms,
they also ease the stress of her job as assistant to the
vice president of Development at a Vermont college.
Older, wiser—and connected
Getting older and learning to manage new
symptoms doesn’t mean people with MS are
unhappy. Although seniors with the disease have
more disabilities than their younger counterparts,
they actually have a better outlook on their MS, the
aging process and life in general.
“In terms of dealing with a new diagnosis, or
symptoms or progression of an old diagnosis,
generally older people have wisdom and resilience
and big-picture views of life, and they can cope and
change their lifestyle better than people in their
20s and 30s,” Dr. Bowling said. Studies find that
older adults with diseases like MS are more likely
than younger people to take advantage of social
supports. They’ve figured out that they need to pace
themselves, rather than charging full steam ahead
through their pain. And they’ve learned which
coping strategies help them deal with the symptoms
of their disease.