Osteoporosis Lessons in a Shared Family History

Sharon Mackinnon begins to count off the women in her family affected by osteoporosis and, off the top of her head, five from three generations spring to mind, including herself. This is just those who were officially diagnosed; chances are several others never were. She also suspects there are men who’ve never bothered to speak to their doctor about the risks they may face if steps aren’t taken to mitigate the effects of deteriorating bone density.​

She’s heard that osteoporosis runs in families, and hers is a family that has learned through experience – some more painful than others. Sharon is more aware than most of the risks that come with osteoporosis in a family where the disease is more common than not.

Take her mother, Lois Anderson, as an example. Around 20 years ago, Lois’ doctor noticed her shoulders had begun to turn inward creating a bit of a slouch, and it was very unlike Lois to slouch.

They began to investigate and discovered her spine was compressing from multiple silent fractures– a sure sign of osteoporosis.

For Sharon, the lessons learned in the following years would create a new awareness of the challenges that come with deteriorating bone density, ultimately helping her manage the same challenges today in her own body.​

For many older adults living with osteoporosis, other health issues, such as dementia, seem to compound upon each other while disguising osteoporosis, increasing the risk of falls and the devastating fractures that come with them.​

Lois was no exception, Sharon says. The primary reason she is living in long-term care is because of the risk her worsening dementia presented. Sharon’s farm is practically right across the highway from the home, so the move made perfect sense.

Lois had lived independently for two years following the death of her husband, and in 2004 she chose to move into a retirement home in Peterborough, where she lived for about 18 months. Dementia continued its progression, however, and in the retirement home she contracted Norwalk virus, which Sharon describes as a “catastrophic” event.​

“That was it,” Sharon says. “She could no longer live independently.”

The transition to Algoma was not easy, but a move such as this rarely is.

“You have to understand, my mother was a very organized, very precise lady and very independent,” Sharon says. “This is a woman who walked, on average, four or five kilometres a day before she moved up here.” She still wanted to walk, however, and the team at Algoma Manor did their best to encourage her in the safest way possible. The risk of falling and breaking a bone was always a reality, though, and one day towards the end of January the year she died, Lois was found on the floor.

“I have no idea if she broke her hip and fell or fell and broke her hip,” Sharon says.

It really makes no difference; the damage was done and she would never walk again, despite the efforts of the team at Algoma Manor once Lois returned there.​

Sharon’s frustration is palpable when she describes the immediate, acute phase in hospital after the fracture was discovered. It was nearly five days before an operation took place, for example, and pain management was virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, her story is not unique in this regard; there is a common misconception in the health care system that older people don’t register pain the same as younger people, which is a myth that causes many elders unnecessary discomfort.​

“You can’t tell me that somebody laying in a bed with their legs strapped together for five days is not having pain with a fractured hip,” Sharon says. “Other than the times I demanded that she be given something for the pain, they didn’t give her so much as an aspirin.”

Sharon suspects the fact that her mother was 92 and living with advanced dementia meant she wasn’t a priority in the hospital, which was beyond frustrating, yet she was there to advocate for Lois and speak up when she could not. Needless to say, Sharon was thankful to see her mother return to Algoma Manor on the tenth day after the hip fracture.​

The physiotherapy teams at Algoma were wonderful and they did their best to help Lois regain her strength, “but she had just lost too much ground mentally and it was another catastrophic insult to her dementia,”​

Sharon says. “She never got up walking again and I don’t think she missed it.”

Looking back, Sharon is thankful she was close to her mother to advocate for her when dementia had clouded her ability to advocate for herself. Bone health remains important. When it comes to osteoporosis, she’s thankful her mother, along with several other family members who also lived with the disease, have helped to create awareness of the challenges it presents. Sharon fell on ice five years ago and the resulting wrist fracture led doctors to test her for osteoporosis and, like so many in her family, she is now living with the disease. Awareness is key, however, and today Sharon manages osteoporosis just as she looks after her other chronic health concerns, such as diabetes. You can’t ignore osteoporosis.

“We have a lot to be thankful for from those previous two generations, teaching us about osteoporosis,” Sharon says.

Her family’s is a powerful story others could learn from and Sharon encourages others to take note: if someone in your family has fractured bones, then you yourself should immediately be tested. If your loved one is in long-term care, unable to advocate for themselves, then be their voice, for osteoporosis and the risks it presents can be managed well and balanced with a life of meaning, so long as the right supports are in place.​

Watch Sharon talk about the history of osteoporosis in her family.