Helping Senior Loved Ones Expand Their World

Worried woman sitting alone by the window with plants on windowsill

Sticking close to home can actually harm the health and shorten the life of older adults.

When you were a kid, if you holed up in your room all day, or parked in front of the TV for hours, Mom was likely to say, “Get off the couch and go outside for some fresh air!”

Now that you’re a grown-up, the tables may be turned! You may have noticed that older loved ones are gradually spending more and more time at home, and are beginning to match the image of elderly people as “shut-ins” or “homebound.”

If this describes your loved one, it’s important to know that experts say spending most of the time at home can harm the health of older adults. A study published in the November 22, 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that older adults who seldom leave their homes don’t live as long as those who get out and about.

You might wonder about cause and effect. Wouldn’t mobility and health problems not only make a person less likely to get out, but also shorten their lives? The research team kept this in mind, and studied both healthy seniors and those who were living with health problems such as diabetes, vision and hearing loss, heart disease and depression. The results? Even the seniors with health problems lived longer if they left the home often. Said study author Dr. Jeremy Jacobs, of the Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem, “What is interesting is that the improved survival associated with getting out of the house frequently was also observed among people with low levels of physical activity, and even those with impaired mobility.”

Other research confirms these findings. A study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found a relationship between the brain health of seniors and their “life space”—defined by study authors from Chicago’s Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center as “the extent to which we move through our environments as we carry out our daily lives—from home to garden to workplace and beyond.”

The researchers, led by study author Prof. Bryan James, studied a group of seniors for almost a decade, and found that those with “constricted life space” were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other memory problems.

And yet, it seems that the physical, cognitive and social challenges we face in our later years can compress our life space down quite a bit. Isn’t it easier and less stressful to just stay home? To avoid feeling lonely and isolated, we can invite people to our home, or interact on Facebook and the phone, right?

In fact, say the experts, the very act of getting out of the house is what’s so protective. And doesn’t it make intuitive sense? Most of us know that blah feeling we get when we’ve been cooped up all day. Being homebound leads to boredom, depression and obesity. Senior advocates say it’s a priority to help the oldest members of our communities remain active, whether it’s volunteer work, attending their faith community, exercising, visiting friends or even shopping.

We should all advocate for improved, senior-friendly features and services in our communities, such as more senior centers, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks with longer walk signals in intersections, adaptations for people with hearing loss, and increased senior transportation options.

Home care, out of the home

Carer Pushing Senior Man In Wheelchair Through Park Smiling

Beyond advocacy, what can families do to help senior loved ones get out and about? If your family uses home care to support the health and safety of an older loved one, remember that a professional caregiver can help your loved one overcome several common barriers to enjoying the space outside our homes:

Transportation. When poor health and sensory impairment strike, one of the first losses may be the ability to drive—and we are such a car-focused society! Professional in-home caregivers can drive your loved one where they want to go, or accompany them on public transportation.

Physical and mobility challenges. Seniors with health conditions such as arthritis, the effects of a stroke or Parkinson’s disease may hesitate to brave stairs and sidewalks. Vision loss can make navigating unfamiliar space quite daunting. And researchers from Finland noted that people with hearing loss are twice as likely to limit their life space. In-home caregivers can supplement the abilities of senior clients, providing a steady arm on stairs, assisting with adaptive equipment such as cane or walker, and providing verbal cues. This extra measure of confidence can make the difference between a day sitting on the couch versus a trip to a museum or out with friends.

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. A person with memory loss and thinking problems may not be safe going out alone—even if, as is often the case, they try to do so! Yet staying home is not the answer. People with dementia can suffer from cabin fever like anyone else. Appropriate outings can improve their mood, sleep and even memory. Check out special dementia-friendly programs in your community—everything from the arts to intergenerational sharing to exercise. The caregiver can be sure your loved one gets to events and back safely.

Fear of falling. It’s such a common cycle. A senior falls, perhaps suffering a broken bone or other injury. While healing from the injury, or just feeling traumatized by the event, the senior takes to their rocking chair—and the inactivity raises their fall risk all the more. They are much more likely to “get back on that horse” if a caregiver is nearby to provide encouragement and confidence. Caregivers also remove fall hazards that could trip clients up. And they prepare nutritious meals to help seniors maintain strength and endurance.

Self-consciousness. Mobility and sensory challenges make it harder to keep up our customary grooming and dressing standards. Arthritis and vision problems can make it harder to bathe, comb our hair, shave, or put on that favorite dress with all those buttons, and that necklace with the tiny clasp. Then, when we know we don’t look our best, we’re likely to withdraw from others. Professional caregivers can assist with bathing, dressing and grooming … and how about a trip to the hair salon or to shop for a new outfit? And if a senior is living with incontinence, the caregiver can help with supplies and going to the toilet. While clients and caregivers often develop a warm relationship, the professional nature of the connection helps preserve dignity.

If it’s been a while since your loved one took part in outings, you may want to start slowly. If your loved one has developed anxiety or a phobia of going out, talk to the doctor about counseling or other treatment. But in many cases, the companionship of a professional caregiver is the key to helping your loved one expand their world.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.