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Health on a need-to-know basis

As we age, it’s important to understand the difference between “nice to know” and “need to know.”

For example, it’s nice to know there are food-delivery options to make meal preparation easier, but you need to know that washing your hands thoroughly when you work with raw or uncooked foods (warm water, soap and lots of friction) and before you eat anything is imperative to your health.

It’s nice to know the hours of your local pharmacy and the fact they have a drive-through option, but it’s imperative to know you absolutely must park your car in the lot outside the pharmacy building and go inside to get your flu shot or your two-part shingles vaccination. You need to know this — and then do you need to do it. Apologies if that seems harsh.

I have a fairly good understanding of prescription medications. I take only two. (By the way, taking four or more prescription meds is a flashing yellow light in terms of increased fall risk.) I find it nice to know that a medication checklist is readily available from my physician or pharmacist to help track what I take (prescription and nonprescription drugs), but I need to know there are certain meds that require particular caution, including anti-anxiety and sleep medications (a local pharmacist tells me melatonin is the only really safe sleep aid for older adults).

It’s nice to know that tai chi is incredibly helpful for improving balance and flexibility in older adults, but you need to know where classes are held and on what days and times and whether your supplemental health provider will cover the costs. By the way, your local YMCA or the ADRC (Aging and Disability Resource Connection, https://eldercare.gov) might offer that information.

Taking a broader perspective on this topic, let’s see if you agree. We, as older adults, absolutely need three basic things: 1) Respect 2) Help 3) Patience.

Let’s make sure that older adults “deserve three basic things:

Respect: One website (www.wikihow.com) suggests respecting an elder means referring to them as “Sir” or “Madam” or Mr. or Mrs., unless they prefer otherwise. Ask. Then respect the request. Listen respectfully to what might sometimes be labored and halting statements. Most definitely, listen to the stories.

Help/Assistance: As we age, the wear-and-tear theory kicks in and we lose strength and agility. Our everyday activities can be much harder. Providing even the smallest assistance can help make a day easier. Opening a door for someone using a cane or walker. Offering to lift or carry a heavy bag. Providing an arm to lean on. Maybe a shoulder to lean on too.

Patience: As we get older, we slow down; we simply do not move as quickly. Things like crossing the street take longer. When you see an elder exhibiting heartwarming patience with an age peer who is frail and moving slowly or a youth being unexpectedly thoughtful toward a fragile grandparent, it warms our heart.

At any age.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.