Helping Elderly Relatives Stay Independent
Aging Is Inevitable
We all age. Some manage to do so more gracefully than others, but still, aging is our common fate. Right now, the population of senior citizens is growing rapidly as the post World War II "baby boom" generation ages and swells the ranks of the elderly just as they did the school populations from 1946 or so until the mid 1960s.
It is at once ironic and sad that we end up in our senior years nearly as helpless as babes, with many of the same safety concerns and needing similar preventative measures installed.
Some of us have lost our parents, and some of us are dealing with aging and increasingly infirm parents. Or, perhaps it is other relatives, even siblings with whose aging difficulties we must assist. Maybe, it is even ourselves. I am rather dismayed to find myself among those for whom freedom of movement is no longer the carefree thing it once was. My husband is in worse shape than I. In pondering this situation, then, this article occurred to me.
Staying Self-Sufficient; Staying Alive
Most people, the elderly included, want to be independent and remain in their own homes for as long as they possibly can. Self-sufficiency is important to our sense of self-worth as humans.
There are many, many devices available these days to help with that goal. Most of these items had not yet been invented in our grandparent's generation.
There are three primary areas of importance in keeping our dignity and feeling worthwhile, and those are:
- bathing and toilet functions
- preparing meals and eating
Any infirmity that causes a problem in any one of these areas definitely affects the senior at a level that can cause depression. Throw in all of them, and they may lose the ability to remain living alone and in independent circumstances.
People who must live in an assisted living residence or nursing home generally go downhill very quickly because they are depressed. Having lost their independence, and their familiar homes, they often lose the will to live at all. So the more we, as family of our treasured elders can do to help them stay safe and happy in their homes, the better for all.
Help in the Bathroom
Statistically (disregarding for the moment Mark Twain's quote about statistics), more accidents happen in the bathroom than any other room in the home, regardless of age. So, it stands to reason that the bathroom is a good place to start "senior-proofing,"
Slip and fall accidents in the bathroom can be very serious, even deadly, due to the hard surfaces found everywhere. A fall is not cushioned by carpet or broken by soft furniture. Your body is going to encounter the hard edge of the tub, the sink, and ultimately the floor.
Preventing such falls is imperative for seniors, even more so than for children. That's not to say that children should not be protected--only that a fall is less damaging to them for their bones have not become fragile like the bones of the elderly.
One of the most difficult motions for senior citizens is moving into or out of a sitting position. Therefore, using the toilet unassisted can be a very challenging proposition, and needing an attendant to assist is a serious blow to one's dignity.
While the living area of the house can be outfitted with electic "rise-assist" chairs, the same is not true of the bathroom. Therefore, assorted types of grab rails, either built-in or portable are needed.
Getting in and out of the bathtub or shower is another very dangerous and often difficult task for seniors. Something solid to grab is vitally important.
Bathtubs can prove very challenging and dangerous, requiring the person to lower themselves virtually down to floor level for the bath, and hoist themselves up again when finished. Some who are still able to to this may yet need some assitance with balance on their way in and out of the tub.
For those who cannot lower themselves all the way, a portable seat is the solution. These can be placed in either the tub or shower, making it unnecessary to sit any lower than an ordinary chair.
Help Getting Dressed: Eliminating the Floor
Being able to get dressed by oneself is another important task that helps people to feel independent and worthwhile. Unfortunately, the older we get, the further away the floor, and hence our shoes, seem to be.
Since we cannot cancel gravity and float easily in space, the floor remains part of our reality. So the idea is to eliminate not the actual floor, but the need for bending over to reach things down there.
Fear not--help is at hand in this area as well. First, there are many different kinds of shoe racks and shoe-holders that keep shoes up off the floor.
For men with built-in water skis for feet, (as my husband quips of himself) who need larger-sized shoes, in the 12 - 13 size range, these options may not work, as they are generally designed for smaller shoes--especially the over-the-door variety of shoe holders.
Zipper pullers help people dress alone; I had one of these back when I used to wear dresses. Even if you don't have a disability, this is a very handy thing to have!
Zippers up the Back
Once the storage issues are addressed, there is the matter of actually getting dressed. This can be another exercise in frustration for those with flexibility or motion impairments.
Many clever solutions that have been invented. Back in the day, many women's dresses had long zippers running up the back as a fastening medium. In fact, the "Honey, can you zip my dress?" theme has been worked to death in the comics and movies.
Today, I'm not so sure--I've refused to wear dresses for over 20 years, now; I'm strictly a jeans/or/sweats kind of gal--so that may or may not still be an issue. But, if you or a loved one still struggles with up-the-back zippers, there are extensions with a hook that can save the day!
Putting on Shoes
Nevertheless, zippers or not, there is still the matter of putting on your shoes, once you've fetched them from your handy-dandy rack. Who remembers shoehorns? Right. Those little plastic spoon-shaped affairs that usually got stuck between your foot and shoe, pinching your fingers in the process. Well, folks, they've been re-invented!
While we're on the shoes, instead of going to the expense of replacing all your shoes with slip-ons, you can turn your lace-up shoes into slip-ons with elastic shoelaces!
Add a little bit of pizzaz with these stylish elastics. I love these! They make it so easy to fasten your shoes! Just pull and done! No knots, no bows, no tangling.
Perhaps some of us remember the teen fad of a few years back, with elastic shoelaces that ended up in tight coils at the tops of the eyelets--even tying a bow was not necessary. All you had to do was give them a tug, and off you went.
Guess what? They're still available! So, for us gals, who may want to toss a bit of style and whimsy into our self-sufficiency routines--have at it!
At the Sink
The kitchen comes in second only to the bathroom for slips, falls and other accidents. It shares the same issues with the bathroom of hard and slippery surfaces everywhere you turn.
It is a tossup as to whether the sink, with its potential for spilled water slips, or the stove and oven, with their threat of burns that is the more dangerous area. In my opinion, though, while burns are never fun, slipping and falling with fragile bones is less so.
So I would recommend always having a non-skid throw rug in front of the sink. Be sure it lays flat, and has a good grip. Most of them are washable, but the rubberized backing will rapidly fall apart if put into the dryer, so it is best to have a pair of them, so one can always be on the floor even if one is in the wash. Please note, however, eventually, the rubber backing will break down anyway: at this point, throw it away, and get a new one, for the deteriorated backing does not grip, and in fact becomes brittle and very slippery--worse than no mat at all.
A clear acrylic cookbook holder not only keeps the book open, leaving both hands free for cooking tasks, but also protects the book from spills and splatters. As a rather accident-prone cook, this has saved many a cookbook page for me!
When working at the stove, all the usual safety precautions apply, and it is more a matter of being aware and being careful. There are not really any devices to assist with this. Keep in mind:
- Tie long hair back away from your face
- Wear short sleeves or roll up long sleeves
- Use oven gloves and pot holders to handle pots and pans
- Have extra oven mitts, and do not use wet ones--you will get a steam burn
- Wipe up spills right away
- Try to keep one hand free for balance against counters while moving about the room
Stay Safe Outdoors, Too!
It is a mobile society in which we live, so there are also considerations to be made for travel, whether it be to the grocery store, the doctor's office, or a vacation. We are all familiar with canes; they are probably among the very oldest of assisted-walking devices. But the 'now generation' of canes is quite a far cry from what they used even in our grandparents' day, let alone centuries ago.
We now have canes that let us "take a load off" and sit a spell. Then, there are tripod canes with 3 feet, and quad canes with 4 feet, for better balance. As an added plus, you can let go of these momentarily while shopping, and they won't fall over--they'll stand there patiently waiting until you're ready to continue.
Other mobility assists such as motorized scooters are well-known, and probably deserve an article of their own by someone with the experience in the matter to make useful comparisons.
Here's to All Our Beloved Elders
And here's to you if you find yourself with me, approaching your "golden years."
The Vulcans of the TV series, "Star Trek" used a standard greeting and farewell:
"Live long and prosper." I leave you with the less-often heard response, "Peace and long life."
© 2012 Liz Elias
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