Immune system on a slippery slope

A column by Graham Hookey who writes about education, parenting and eldercare

As a health teacher, I regularly told students that there was nothing more important than their health.

I certainly don’t need to remind the elderly of that.

With my mom moving in with me after the passing of my father, I have been privy to the nature of her phone conversations, not so much because I have been trying to listen in, but because her hearing is somewhat comprised and, thus, she tends to speak loudly enough that the neighbors all around us are also sharing her conversations.

The topic of 99 percent of her conversations? You guessed it: health.

Since those with whom she is carrying on conversations tend to be over the age of 80, this should come as no surprise. There is no shortage of medical stories to tell.

One good friend has had a terrible case of shingles for about eight months. Since this is a disease of the nervous system, it is complicated to treat and has a lot of symptoms that affect various parts of the body.

Truly, it is a problem that creates a great deal of suffering and loss of sleep. It has a tendency to attack those with compromised immune systems, which pretty much includes everyone over the age of 80.

It’s important to understand that this is not a disease that is caught; essentially, we all carry the virus that causes it from our childhood.  Thus, simply staying away from others won’t help.

There is a vaccine for it, but few elders get it.

Having seen the impact on her friend, my mom has become an advocate of this particular vaccine and has relayed, in graphic detail, the problems shingles can cause.

I have to say, knowing what I do now about the condition, I would suggest that any senior who has reached the age of 80, or who has any sense that their immune system is weakened, should speak to a doctor about the vaccine.

Compromised immune systems come with the territory as we age. Whether it is vaccinations for the flu or for shingles, the reality is that the elderly need additional support to give their systems the strength necessary to fight off disease.

After all, if something was caught because the immune system was already weak, how much weaker will it be, and thus how much more susceptible will the individual be when yet another virus or bacteria is introduced?

My mom’s discussions with others often end up following a trail from one condition to the next, and the most frightful issues tend to arise once a hospital visit becomes necessary.

As ironic as it may seem, the last place most sick elders want to be is in the hospital, where they perceive the greatest risks to their health exist.

I know this is not the first time I’ve said this, nor do I believe it will be the last, but the importance of preventative care for the elderly cannot be overstated.

At some point, it is a simple reality that the slope becomes very slippery as the immune system fights hard but tires easily.

Graham Hookey writes about education, parenting and eldercare. Email him at

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