Published on April 24, 2017
Articles in this issue:
Some changes—like needing reading glasses—go with the territory of reaching a certain age. But some aches, pains and "senior moments" actually stem from treatable conditions. Seniors shouldn't suffer in silence when these troublesome symptoms strike.
Until fairly recently, the assumption was that aging equaled a steady, rather predictable, decline in our physical and mental abilities. People who experienced pain, joint stiffness, loss of appetite, mental fog or dimming vision were likely to chalk it up to "just a part of growing older."
It's true that with age, we're more likely to develop certain health conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, osteoporosis or diabetes. But today, geriatricians emphasize that many changes people assume are part of natural aging are actually health conditions that can be treated—and in some cases, even halted or reversed. Yet many of us still accept these changes as part of "normal aging."
Here are five things that should send you not to your rocking chair, but to your doctor.
1. Memory loss—Most of us will notice certain changes in our memory as we grow older. We might work a little harder to recall a word or a person's name. We might search the whole house looking for our reading glasses, only to realize they're on our head. Experts tell us those changes are normal, due in part to our brains containing so much information that it takes a little longer to access it. These "senior moments" can cause us to worry that we are developing Alzheimer's disease. And while it's certainly true that the risk of Alzheimer's and other dementia increases with age, it's also important to know that some memory problems stem from treatable causes. Common culprits include alcohol abuse, metabolic disorders, urinary tract infections, sleep problems, vitamin deficiencies, depression, chronic pain, and delirium resulting from hospitalization. Medication side effects also can cause memory problems, so have your doctor or pharmacist review all prescription and over-the-counter medications you take.
2. Vision problems—As we grow older, some vision changes are very common—for example, difficulty focusing close up. Many of us will develop sight-robbing conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic eye disease. But with regular eye exams, certain types of vision loss can be prevented and even reversed. Glaucoma can be treated before serious damage is done. Some damage from macular degeneration can be prevented. Most notably, today cataract surgery is restoring the sight of many seniors—even leaving some with better vision than they had when they were young! And as we saw in the February 2017 issue of the Caring Right at Home newsletter, vision rehabilitation helps seniors make the most of their remaining eyesight.
3. Tooth loss—Poor oral health is linked to poor nutrition, social isolation, heart disease and even dementia. Although the National Institutes of Health reports that 25 percent of people older than 75 have lost all their teeth, modern dentistry is helping many seniors keep their natural teeth longer. Regular dental care can treat dry mouth, gum disease and plain old wear and tear, helping seniors avoid tooth loss. But dental care, especially restorative care such as bridges, crowns and implants, is costly. Geriatricians warn that the top impediment to good oral health may be the cost of dental treatment. They call for affordable dental care for our nation's seniors—but for now, most of us are on our own. See the March 2016 issue of the Caring Right at Home newsletter to read more about the importance of planning ahead for the cost of dental care.
4. Depression—Depression strikes people of every age, but seniors are at highest risk. Sometimes a change in life circumstances triggers depression—grief and loneliness resulting from the death of a spouse, health challenges and a loss of independence, or chronic pain. Certain health conditions raise the risk—and depression, in turn, can worsen those conditions. Seniors take a number of medications that alone or in combination can worsen depression. Alcohol abuse, poor nutrition and poor-quality sleep could also be part of the problem. Seniors who are experiencing a persistent mood of sadness and loss of interest in things they once loved should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Depression is treatable with counseling, medication, managing underlying health conditions, and lifestyle changes such as exercise and increased social connection.
5. Weakness—It's true that we lose muscle as we grow older. Experts estimate that we lose more than 10 percent of our muscle strength every decade beyond the age of 50. How well we will fare in this department is partly a matter of genes—but to a large extent, it's also a matter of "use it or lose it." A good exercise program that includes aerobic and strength-training activities, combined with adequate nutrition, helps seniors avoid sarcopenia, defined by the National Institute on Aging as "a loss of muscle mass often associated with weakness, which is a commonly recognized cause of disability in older people." Exercise promotes independence, reduces our risk of falling, and staves off the too-common cycle in which a senior who feels tired spends more time sitting, thereby creating greater fatigue. Ask the doctor about a "prescription" for an exercise program that's right for you, taking into account any health conditions such as heart failure or arthritis. Almost everyone can benefit from increased physical activity—that's why exercise is often called the real Fountain of Youth.
Though aging brings certain predictable changes, everyone ages in their own way. It's important not to judge yourself by the standards of others—for example, those models in commercials for senior living communities who often look like Olympic athletes who dyed their hair gray. On the other hand, it's important not to assume that nothing can be done to help you overcome common—but not always inevitable—ailments that age can bring.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about physical and mental changes that are troubling to you—especially if these changes appear suddenly.
Professional in-home care helps family help their loved one.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that almost 800,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke each year. Although stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in America, more people today are surviving a stroke than ever before. Many of these survivors will make a full recovery, usually with the help of stroke rehabilitation. Others will be left with permanent disabilities that include paralysis or weakness, emotional changes, and problems with thinking, speaking and understanding speech.
During the recovery process, and as they are living with any long-term effects of their stroke, survivors often need a great deal of assistance and support for the best outcome and quality of life. Recovery can be lengthy. Patients need help managing their rehabilitation regimen and medications. They often need assistance with personal care and eating. Their home may be in immediate need of modifications to accommodate their reduced abilities and to prevent falls.
Family caregivers can become quickly overburdened as they support their loved one's care.
It begins at the hospital. Stroke patients may have trouble understanding, much less remembering, information about their condition, care recommendations, and instructions on how to take medications. Dr. Paul Wright of Northwell Health explained, "In the past, you'd have one doctor come into your hospital room and that would be your physician. But over the years, we've started developing specialties and subspecialties, and now there are 10 or 15 physicians who show up." This can be very confusing, and often, a patient's family must step in to communicate with the medical team.
Next, a stroke patient may be discharged to a rehabilitation center for recovery. But the role of family doesn't end at that point. Though their loved one is receiving professional care and supervision at the facility, families are still an important part of the care team. They visit their loved one; help navigate medical bills, Medicare and other insurance; work with staff to arrange for medical equipment at home; and schedule follow-up appointments.
Coming home after a stroke
When a stroke patient comes home, the real work begins. Many patients wish to return home as soon as possible, to recover in familiar surroundings while receiving continued treatment at an outpatient rehabilitation center. Yet their care needs may still be great, and living independently and safely requires some help! They most likely can't drive. Their home may need to be adapted for one-story living if it has stairs and other obstacles. They may be unable to prepare meals or dress without help. The paperwork alone can be overwhelming. This is when the workload of family members really grows. Said Dr. James Burke of the University of Michigan, "Stroke survivors need a caregiver to spend the equivalent of half of a full-time job each week to help them." His research revealed that "more than half of elderly stroke survivors receive help from a caregiver, requiring 22.3 hours of assistance per week on average. That's nearly double what elderly patients who have not had a stroke require, at an average of 11.8 hours of help."
Providing this care can take a toll on spouses, children and other family caregivers, so much so that they raise their own risk of depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, diabetes—and, as might be expected, stroke. Their careers can suffer, along with their financial well-being.
Families can't do it alone. They should take advantage of support resources in the community, which might include help from other family and friends, and from local senior support organizations. For help with hands-on care and all-around assistance, professional in-home care is a great way to support a patient's recovery after stroke, while protecting families from stress overload.
Trained, professional caregivers provide:
In-home care supports a stroke survivor's compliance with medical and rehabilitation goals to help ensure optimum recovery and independence, and to lower the risk of another stroke. Just as important, it protects the health and well-being of family caregivers.
For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.
Tom stayed up late preparing for a business meeting, stopped by his elderly mother's house early in the morning to help her get dressed, and now he can barely keep his eyes open. He's drifted onto the rumble strips three times already since he got on the highway!
Most people know the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They've heard that talking on the phone or texting while behind the wheel can cause an accident. Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has added another D to their list of driver impairments, warning us that we should never drive while drunk, drugged, distracted—or drowsy.
NHTSA estimates that each year, 100,000 car crashes are caused when a driver drifts off to sleep while operating a vehicle—and this includes an average of 1,550 deaths per year. A study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that 21 percent of fatal crashes are caused by drowsy driving. And the National Sleep Foundation says these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. Highway patrol officers may be able to spot signs that a driver is drifting off, but once a crash has taken place, there's no test to determine whether the driver was sleepy, and the driver may not remember the cause—because they were asleep!
Data show that although young drivers are more likely to drive drowsy than seniors are, declining sleep quality in old age means a significant number of older adults get behind the wheel when they've not slept well.
Family caregivers also might be susceptible. They have a lot on their plate, and they're often too busy to get enough sleep. When they do get to bed, they might toss and turn, kept awake by anxiety about their loved one's condition, or by their loved one getting up during the night.
Six ways to lower the risk of a drowsy driving accident
Know the signs. We don't notice the moment we fall asleep in bed, and likewise, we're unlikely to realize we've drifted off behind the wheel until it's too late. AAA safety expert Jake Nelson says, "We should consider the dangers whenever we attempt to push our driving to the limits. We can protect ourselves and everyone else on the road by recognizing the simple signs of fatigue." AAA says that these include:
Be safe when you're behind the wheel. Plan driving trips during the hours that you are normally awake, not into the late hours—and avoid prolonged driving stints. Take a break every couple of hours. If you feel sleepy, pull over and take a brief nap. Have passengers help watch for signs of fatigue and switch driving with you if possible. Don't drink alcohol or eat a heavy meal before driving. And read the labels of medications you take—are they known to cause drowsiness?
Know what helps and what doesn't. Experts warn that rolling down car windows and listening to the radio both are ineffective ways of keeping you awake in the car. Coffee or other caffeinated beverages might perk you up, but remember it takes half an hour for the effect to kick in.
Sleep and driving safety experts concur that the best way to prevent drowsy driving is to get enough sleep! Most of us need at least seven hours of sleep a day. AAA reports that when we get one or two fewer hours of sleep than we need, our risk of an accident is doubled. Said AAA's Dr. David Yang, "You cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to safely function behind the wheel. A driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk." The National Institutes of Health estimates that driving after we've been awake for 18 hours affects us as much as a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent; after 24 hours, that rises to 0.10 percent—surpassing the legal limit in all states.
Practice good sleep hygiene. Even if we go to bed at a reasonable hour, we can still have a sleep deficit if we don't sleep well. To ensure good-quality sleep, follow a regular sleep schedule. Create a sleep environment that's quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature. Get some exercise during the day. Avoid bringing light-emitting devices, such as your smartphone or tablet, to bed. Choose calm, soothing activities such as reading or listening to soft music to help you drift off. Ask your doctor if any of your medications could be keeping you awake. And speaking of medications, don't rely on sleeping pills, which actually interfere with restorative sleep patterns. Find more sleep suggestions in the October 2015 issue of the Caring Right at Home newsletter.
Seek help for sleep problems. If you experience insomnia, waking during the night, sleep apnea or other sleep problems, talk to your doctor. You may be referred to a sleep specialist. If chronic worrying is keeping you awake, talk to a counselor. If you're a caregiver and must get up at night when your loved one needs to go to the bathroom, or if your loved one has the disordered sleep patterns of dementia, arrange for overnight respite from friends or family. And remember that in-home care services can be provided during the overnight hours.
Doing what it takes to avoid drowsy driving can save your life. If you get behind the wheel when you're fatigued, you risk injury, death, perhaps a hefty lawsuit—and even a jail sentence. No destination is worth that risk. Take the bus, or take a nap!
To learn more about drowsy driving, visit the websites of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Sleep Foundation's DrowsyDriving.org.
Today's budding female scientists can take inspiration from the innovative women who came before them.
These days, more women than ever are entering the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math. Many unheralded pioneers of science and technology paved the way for them.
In the Right at Home blog, meet Marion Donovan, who invented a better diaper … Katharine Burr Blodgett, who developed non-reflective glass … Grace Murray Hopper, a computer pioneer … Margaret Knight, who won a court battle to claim her patent for a machine that makes flat-bottomed bags … and Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar.
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