Long-term care bear

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

She spends her free time doing puzzles and walking around outside. She has cataracts and high blood pressure, and she has to take a daily fiber supplement because her eating habits just aren't what they used to be. She celebrated her most recent birthday with a special cake made by her loved ones and caregivers.

That description could probably fit any number of your residents, but I'm willing to bet they don't stay fit by somersaulting down hills — or by snacking on 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day.

A giant panda named Jia Jia recently made headlines for turning 37 — that's over 100 in people years — making her the oldest panda to ever live in captivity. The sheer cuteness of a giant panda eating a cake made from flavored ice and fruit isn't what got me to click on the headline (although look at her — she's adorable). What caught my eye about Jia Jia's landmark birthday was a quote from one of her veterinarians at Hong Kong's Ocean Park:

“She is ageing gracefully, just like your grandma,” the vet told The Guardian.

Jia Jia is no spring chicken. Her vets say she doesn't move around as much, and she sleeps more than she used to. She has a variety of health ailments, most of which are related to aging.  But pandas typically only live to be 18 to 20 years old in the wild, and 25 in captivity. So what makes Jia Jia the exception?

Genetics? Could be. Luck? Maybe. But Jia Jia's veterinarians were able to provide the black and white fluffball with something her relatives in the wild never had — a long-term care plan.

Jia Jia came to Ocean Park in 1999, a gift to celebrate the Hong Kong's handover by Britain two years earlier. She was already 21 years old at that point, pushing 60 in human years. Ocean Park's veterinary staff decided to specially train Jia Jia and another panda, An An, in order to help detect and treat age-related health concerns.

Among special health-centric training, the pandas were taught to stick their arms out so zoo staff could do blood draws four times a year. Through these blood draws, veterinarians noticed Jia Jia had high blood pressure, so they put her on medication. Over the years, Jia Jia started eating less bamboo than a healthy panda should, so zoo staff started giving her a fiber supplement.

Specialized medical care and meal plans tailored to keep a patient living healthier, happier and longer? If it works for human long-term care residents, why shouldn't it work for a giant panda?

Jia Jia's vet told The Guardian that her predecessor, and her predecessor's predecessor were both worried about how long the popular panda would live. But 16 years later, Jia Jia has surpassed the odds, no doubt thanks to the specialized care her veterinary team provides.

So happy birthday, Jia Jia. Here's to many more bamboo birthday cakes, and years of aging gracefully.

Emily Mongan is a Staff Writer at McKnight's.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.