Ayurveda for Senior Care: 6 Tips for Pitta Season
The approaching summer and pitta season always makes me think of new life and growth, the playfulness of youth, the peak time of year for young people and growing families. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement of all the summer trips to plan and the sunshine and the barbeques, but today, I want to focus on an aspect of Ayurveda seldom touched upon in the Western world—senior care.
In Ayurveda, this is called Vridhopacharaneeyam, or what we refer to as geriatric care. There are actually eight Ayurvedic branches of care alone dedicated to Vardhakya, or “old age,” which only made it clearer to me when I explored this portion of Ayurveda that health, well-being, and emotional care are as important for the elderly as they are for our children and ourselves as adults.
Oftentimes, keeping up with the care and health of elderly parents is an overwhelming task to consider. This is true especially for the “sandwich generation”—those of us literally sandwiched between caring for our aging parents or family members while also still supporting our own children. I have personally found, though, that when I establish an individualized system of care for my mother that addresses each of her needs with well-rounded and effective methods, as Ayurveda has traditionally done for so very long, the seeming burden of elderly care is greatly lifted. When I incorporated these Ayurvedic principles in caring for my own elderly mother, I found she quickly transformed into a much happier, more present, and surprisingly more independent person. All of this in turn makes caring for my elderly mother so much easier, more natural, fulfilling, and fun. Beyond that, it simply brings us closer together. I think this is because Vardhakya Ayurveda aims to improve the quality of life instead of merely reaching to stretch the “quantity of years remaining.”
These are the six areas I like to focus on when learning how to find the “right Ayurvedic fit” with my elderly mother. They’re pretty similar to the ways I incorporate Ayurveda into my own life, just with slight variations in focus geared toward all the things that come with advanced age.
Seasonal Diet – This is one of the most crucial aspects of maintaining a long, healthy life, and I think it may even be more important for the elderly. Pitta season is hot, oily, light, spreading, and liquid, much like the overwhelming humidity in some places during the summer. To balance pitta’s qualities with a seasonal diet, the best foods and drinks for everyone will be sweet, bitter, astringent, and cool. We want to avoid anything salty, sour, or pungent and especially stay away from spicy foods in general. Coffee and alcohol are pretty much out for everyone, but if coffee can’t be taken out entirely, a little cardamom helps balance its effects during pitta.
My go-to, instant pitta-cooling drink is either cool water with mint (stay away from lemon, as citrus fruits are pitta-aggravating) or even cool mint tea with just a hint of honey. Some of my favorite pitta-season meals for everyone include cucumber salad, watermelon and cherries (sticking to sweet fruits instead of sour), and really any dish over basmati rice. Chicken is the best protein source during pitta for those of us who eat meat, but sometimes for the elderly, it can be either difficult to chew or even to eat enough of it. Beans, in general, are a fantastic source of protein (as is quinoa) and definitely pacify excess pitta during the summer. Cooked down, especially in a bean salad, these are easily chewed and digestible for our elderly loved ones and make a fantastic base for so many meals. Check out these cooling pitta-season recipes for a few more ideas.
One of the best herbs for the elderly is nettle, which has been used medicinally all over the world for centuries. This superfood provides a surprising wealth of vitamins, nourishes the kidneys and adrenals, has sedative and nervine properties, and helps alleviate stress. It’s great for aches and pains and is incredibly soothing as a tea, especially before bed.
Remember that mealtimes—and the amount of food eaten—can be very different for the elderly than what we busy adults are used to eating ourselves. Meals are generally taken earlier in the morning between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and in the evening between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., with smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. We also need to keep in mind that the consistency and textures of foods will be slightly different—soft, easily chewable foods are best for the elderly. Soups or mashes are especially helpful, as they’re easier to both eat and digest. Co0l summer-squash soup, anyone? This article has an incredibly helpful table for dietary modifications for the elderly and why they’re so important.
Spices – As I’ve said, spicy is not the way to go during the pitta months and the heat of summer, as they raise our body’s temperature and can aggravate the heat and irritation pitta season brings. Mint, fennel, and cilantro are fantastic herbs for everyone during pitta season. Beyond beating the heat and balancing our doshas, a few Ayurvedic must-haves when cooking also carry powerfully soothing properties for combating osteoarthritis, which is unfortunately such a common affliction in the elderly. Ginger, turmeric, and fenugreek are my particular favorites. Ginger and turmeric can both be used to make teas and sipped on through the entire day; they help soothe the inflammation common to osteoarthritis and also add great flavors to any meal. Beyond that, these are also among the top herbs recommended for anti-aging—fantastic for the elderly, and great for us when we’re sharing meals with them too. Fenugreek as a tea or part of a dish helps alleviate pain. (Note that Ayurvedic guidelines prohibit both garlic and tomatoes; also avoid cinnamon, listed in the article linked above, during the pitta season.)
Massage – This is important for everyone, but for the elderly, Ayurvedic massage—or Abhyanga, can be especially helpful in alleviating the pains and stiffness that intensify with age. This also aids in moving and clearing the adrenal system, and it’s especially important to follow any massage with lots and lots of water (add some of that mint, too!). Use a base of safflower or coconut oil and add some cooling, soothing, and even sweet pitta-pacifying essential oils. My favorites are jasmine and lavender, which are both so incredibly relaxing. Lavender paired with the sweetness of coconut oil helps settle me down after a long day. Helping our elderly loved ones with Abhyanga and these scents is a luxurious way to show our love for them and their bodies.
Sleep – The majority of elderly people seem to already have this down year-round when it comes to the best times for turning in and waking up during pitta season. They either need less sleep at this point in their lives or often have difficulty sleeping due to aches and pains. But the best times to start the day are before sunrise or at least by 6:00 a.m. and an ideal time for heading to bed is around 8:00 p.m. The very latest any of us should be ending our day is 10:00 p.m., as this is when pitta becomes dominant—that time when we’re digesting experiences and emotions of the day, plus our food from hours before, and our bodies focus on rejuvenation. Staying up later than this can make us groggy and less likely to wake up on time the next morning.
Exercise – During the pitta season, vigorous exercise isn’t recommended. I know I can’t handle it in the summer heat, and most of our elderly loved ones are probably past their prime in those regards (to those who are still incredibly active, more power to you!). The best exercises now are a little light chair yoga, especially when stretching and bending may be difficult for the elderly. Walks in nature—with lots of trees and shade, if possible—are great for both keeping bodies moving and gently cooling during the day. And of course, everyone goes to the pool in the summer to cool off! Swimming is also an incredible form of exercise for the elderly, as it alleviates aches and pains just by floating and helping us feel lighter. Water also adds just a tiny bit of resistance to help keep muscles strong and active without straining them too much.
Meditation – If we are choosing to still be active and get our cooling, light exercise in, it’s always best to meditate before these activities. Try 10-15 minutes of cooling Pranayama—or breath—meditation to bring down the temperature of our bodies and calm the mind. Even if our loved ones find it difficult to get up and around, meditation can be done almost anywhere in any position.
Overall, I think the most important aspect of any new routine of personal care and well-being—whether it’s for our children, our aging parents, or ourselves—is consistency. During the pitta season, when we all want to be out and about and enjoying the sunshine, Ayurveda helps us do all these things with our elderly loved ones that both extend their quality of life and makes the summer more fun for everyone. Eating cool, sweet, and bitter foods plus lots of nourishing herbs (gotta love that ginger), soothing massages, and light exercise all help to balance excess pitta, cool us off, and get our internal systems working. Maintaining consistent wake and sleep times, plus creating a morning ritual, can keep our elderly loved ones in the right frame of mind with higher energy levels. Of course, a little Pranayama meditation never hurt, either. Incorporating Ayurvedic principles into your own life and those of the elderly loved ones you’re caring for is actually quite easy to do at the same time. And don’t forget, after spending a day in the sunshine (or shade) and enjoying all the excitement of pitta season and summer, our all-natural candies like Bing Balance are an excellent way to sit back, relax, and enjoy life.