Out & About: Staying Active in Later Life

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While there are still many elements of ageing that scientists don’t quite understand, one aspect that is apparent is that functional decline in old age – reduced cognitive ability and limited mobility, for example – can often be directly attributed to a lack of socialisation and minimal physical activity. While getting out and about and remaining active can be difficult for the elderly, particularly if they’re struggling with common age-related conditions such as a loss of bone density, it’s important for both their physical health and their emotional wellbeing to try and stay as active as possible, whether that means regular walks, taking a class, or meeting up with friends and family. As children or caregivers, we must acknowledge our responsibility for encouraging the elderly to retain a healthy and active lifestyle.
Why Remaining Active is Important

There has been a great deal of research looking into the effects of a sedentary, isolated lifestyle among the elderly, and the findings are broadly similar. What studies have found is that an active lifestyle in old age can play a significant role in physical health, day-to-day living activities, and emotional wellbeing.

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* Physical Health
In terms of physical health, remaining active is important for both treatment and prevention. Cancer Research UK reports that regular physical activity can help to protect against a number of different types of cancer, including breast cancer, bowel cancer, and womb cancer. It can also help elderly people to maintain a healthy weight, reducing the risk of weight-related conditions such as Type II diabetes.

Exercise is also believed to be a very effective treatment method for some age-related illnesses. Asthma, for example, which is prevalent in the over 65s, could be managed successfully through a wide range of low impact exercises.

* Day-to-Day Management
You may have heard the phrase ‘activities of daily living’, or ADLs. This covers everything an elderly person might need to perform on any given day, such as getting out of bed, washing, dressing, cooking, and so on. For elderly people who wish to remain in their own homes, being able to safely carry out these tasks is essential. Research has found that cognitive training (brain training exercises, such as meeting for a pub quiz!), can have a huge effect on how well an elderly person can perform ADLs. In one study, 60 percent of elderly people who underwent training were above the baseline for ADLs, compared to just 50 percent of control subjects.

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* Emotional Wellbeing
We all want to be there for our parents, but if we’re trying to juggle work responsibilities with commitments to our own families and children, being around all the time simply isn’t feasible. It’s good for a parent to have their own network of friends, especially those who share similar interests. There is a widespread belief among healthcare professionals that there’s a solid link between depression and loneliness, and depression is thought to substantially increase the risk of death in the elderly. Reduced mobility can make it difficult to make new friends in old age, which is why it’s important for children or caregivers to encourage and support these ventures.

Social Activities & Mobility: Addressing the Concern

If you’ve suggested that an elderly parent or relative pops out to enjoy a walk, or join a local class, and the idea hasn’t exactly been well received, this isn’t surprising. It can be nerve wracking to try new things when you’re older (‘you can’t teach old dogs new tricks’, as they say), but it’s often even more distressing for people who struggle with age-related conditions, especially reduced mobility. If an elderly person suffers with a lack of balance, they may constantly be worrying about falling over outside and having no one around to help them. If they find it difficult or painful to take stairs, they may fear that any class or meet-up that they sign up for will be held in an upstairs venue, without an available lift.

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This is another area where we as children or caregivers need to provide as much support as we possibly can. The good news is that disability discrimination laws in the UK mean that many public buildings – such as community centres where classes may be held – need to include suitable access for the disabled. In many cases, this means having a lift to access multistorey buildings, doors that can accommodate a wheelchair, and disabled toilet facilities. Some venues may be better equipped than others, especially if they’re supported by local businesses or nationwide firms. Acorn Mobility, for example, is very involved in the community, and has in the past provided stairlifts to a number of UK amateur dramatic societies.

Activities for the Elderly

A common question is ‘what sort of activities are good for the elderly?’ This, of course, is a very difficult question to answer, as it will largely depend upon the person’s individual interests, and their level of health. However, there are some activities that are great options for the elderly to consider:

* Sports
Sports doesn’t have to mean running a marathon (although apparently it does for Fauja Singh, who completed the London Marathon in 2012 at the age of 101!). Remember that, after the age of 30, our performance begins to go into decline, and decreases at a rate of about 8 percent every 10 years. This usually means that high impact sports that leave us breathless are out. So what’s in? Studies report that more than half of women aged over 65 enjoy walking, making it the most popular physical activity for the elderly. Around 35 percent enjoy gardening, 16 percent go swimming regularly, and 13 percent hop on their bicycles. Dance is also great!

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* Clubs & Classes
A great way for elderly people to socialise with friends, meet new people, and keep the brain ticking all at the same time, is to take part in a local club, or sign up to a local class. Creative writing classes, craft groups, language classes, choirs, or even taking a class to learn basic web skills can prove to be very beneficial. You may also find that local organisations – particularly the churches – organise dedicated meet-ups for elderly members of the community. The Royal Voluntary Service is a good place to start. Their website can help to put you in touch with local community centres, social centres, and lunch club organisers in the area the person resides.

Staying Happy & Staying Safe

There are risks everywhere – including in the home – but if an elderly person is venturing outside the home and undertaking activities on a regular basis, there are more aspects to be aware of. If they start taking a sports class, for example, it’s important to take into account that 75 percent of sporting injuries that occur in elderly men happen in the lower extremities, most commonly in the knee. Therefore, try to encourage your parent or relative to take the necessary precautions, such as wearing a knee support if they’re planning to take part in sports that could put significant pressure on the joints.

It’s also a good idea to chat with your parent or relative and discuss a timetable. While we don’t want to smother them, we do need our own peace of mind, knowing that they’re safe. Keep a note of what classes they have, and when and where they are, so that you don’t panic when you phone the house and no one picks up! If an elderly person doesn’t have a mobile phone, now might be a good time to pick one up and teach them how to make and receive calls. This can be beneficial for both parties, as elderly people may find they’re more inclined to head out knowing they have a ‘security blanket’ to use if needed.

Staying Active

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(Image Source: Flickr)

Maintaining an active lifestyle as we age isn’t easy, but as more and more research is undertaken into the matter, we see just how important it really is, both for physical health and overall wellbeing. Here’s something to consider – that mortality rates for elderly people who live in care homes are typically higher than for those who remain in their own home during their later years. While there are a large number of factors that could influence this finding – including physical health – one important aspect that is important to take into consideration is that people who live at home usually retain a more active lifestyle due to opportunities within the local community. Have you ever been cleaning the house and thought ‘if I stop, I’ll never get going again’? It’s the same when it comes to activity and the elderly.

Activity in old age is great for helping to build muscle, which naturally declines as we get older. It’s great for keeping our minds sharp, and it can even help us to live on a day-to-day basis with much more ease. As children or caregivers, we all have a responsibility to encourage elderly people to remain as active as possible, whether that’s through physical activity, cognitive training, or socialisation. There’s a solution out there regardless of individual interest, skill level, or state of health. So let’s get to it!

This article was contributed by Harold Rigby, a health and lifestyle writer and an expert on post-retirement issues.

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