Boston Aging Well
Helpful tips for family caregivers
December 2014/January 2015
This holiday season it’s a worthy exercise to reflect on the importance of personal choice (the “dignity of risk”) and the importance of leisure and play. It’s also good, with New Years around the corner, to think literally about exercise. In particular, walking. Walking is the easiest and most social of physical activities. It’s a good habit to catch!
"Dignity of risk"
One of the most challenging dilemmas in caring for an aging parent is figuring out how to balance their preference for independence with your concern for their safety.
If you have noticed lapses in cleanliness, meals, bill payment, or other areas, you may be worried that your parent is not able to safely live alone. Your loved one, however, may refuse assistance, not recognizing there is a problem.
Research suggests that as many as 1 in 10 elders make healthcare and lifestyle choices that put their safety and well-being at risk. Scary as that may sound, they are adults and need to be afforded the “dignity of risk.” The following may help.
Accept some risk. Get a professional evaluation of your loved one’s ability to make decisions clearly. Even if your parent has mild memory loss or early dementia, he or she is still legally entitled to make personal decisions. We all have the right to make “bad” choices.
Clarify his or her long-term priorities. Become an ally. Discuss what’s most important, then work toward that goal together. “Mom, I also want you to be able to live out your days right here, just as you say. Let’s see what we can come up with together to make sure that happens.”
Act on what’s acceptable. Adopt an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to pursue change slowly. If dad won’t give up driving, will he accept rides at night? Look for options that add to safety while you support your loved one’s long-term goals.
Get direction for the future. Talk with your parent now about worst-case scenarios on a “what if” basis. Emphasize that you want things to unfold to your parent’s liking as much as possible.
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Seniors having fun online
When you read about “successful aging,” the focus is often how well an elder has maintained physical health. How mentally sharp he or she has remained. How much he or she has stayed socially engaged. Without doubt, studies link seniors’ quality of life with physical, mental, and social activity.
But what happens when your loved one loses the ability to pursue physical exercise? When social options are limited by lack of transportation? When memory problems make it harder to engage with favorite hobbies or interests?
New research is showing that time spent on the Internet can overcome some of the losses and limitations of aging. Online communities cannot replace “real relationships.” But they do provide meaningful outlets of expression. And they counteract the loneliness and isolation felt by so many elders.
Studies show that older adults frequently turn to the Internet to research the family tree or meet with others involved in a particular hobby. Some use the Web to assemble photo albums. Others play games. Still others enjoy posting stories and sharing jokes and riddles.
If you think your loved one might benefit from online fun but is stymied by new technology, consider these learning resources:
- A search engine that uses a larger font size, www.Good50.com, relies on Google’s smarts but makes screen viewing easier.
- A set of free lessons on the basics of computer use can be found at www.skillfulsenior.com. Interactive lessons teach skills such as right clicking, left clicking, and drag-and-drop.
- A collection of free tutorials at www.gcflearnfree.org/technology covers everything from Internet safety to email basics or the use of an iPad or iPhone.
And when your family member is ready for some online play, check out the Games Site at AARP. The options range from solitaire to “Ice Cream Blast.” Anyone up for a game of Internet mahjong?
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Start a safe walking routine
Walking for exercise is recommended for every phase of life!
And the ability to get around readily is often the deciding factor in whether an older adult can stay living at home. Take advantage of family visits to jump-start a walking habit.
Many older adults are hesitant to walk much. If you sense resistance, ask your loved one about concerns. He or she may be afraid of falling or of the neighborhood. Other common obstacles include foot problems, uncomfortable shoes, depression, fatigue, or poor eyesight.
Begin by getting the doctor’s approval. Hearing directly from the doctor that walking is a good idea may help your relative get going. Even short 10-minute walks are beneficial.
Review safe walking practices with your relative.
- What to bring. Dress in layers. Wear bright colors and loose-fitting, comfortable clothes. Wear flexible shoes that fit well and provide a non-slip sole. Carry a cell phone or other device for emergency help. Bring water. And bring any usual walking aids, such as a cane or walker, properly fitted to your relative’s size.
- Where to walk. When weather permits, walk outdoors. Choose smooth-surfaced, well-lit, and low-traffic locations. This might be a walking path in the neighborhood or a nearby school or park. In bad weather or overly hot weather, try a shopping mall or gymnasium.
- How to walk. Focus on deep breathing and good posture. The goal is natural, even strides with arms swinging easily. Eventually the pace should be brisk enough to raise the heart rate yet permit conversation. But in the beginning, you want it to be easy and fun so it will become an enjoyable habit.
Ideally, see if you can find a walking buddy or walking group for your relative. Especially for people who are not used to exercise, it’s more fun when it’s part of a social activity.
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