Robin Seaton Jefferson, Contributor
“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
L. Frank Baum wrote it in his 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and it still resonates. “There’s no place like home.” And we find out as we get older that the thought of living anywhere but home is almost more than we can bare. The fact is our homes-whatever their splendor-are our castles and we want to stay in them.
Here are 10 tips from experts on aging that increase the likelihood of an older adult remaining in their own home and needing less assistance to do so. The first five will address changes we can make to our homes to keep our physical living environments safe. The last five will address changes we can make to keep our bodies and minds healthy and safe at home as we age.
The McMaster Optimal Aging Portal—an information-sharing resource for citizens, clinicians, health care professionals and policymakers on aging—offers the latest scientific evidence on aging and health care topics for seniors. According to the site, research shows preventing falls, changing your diet, being more active, staying social and reviewing your medications are all important priorities for staying healthy at home.
- SeniorAdvisor.com, one of the nation’s largest senior living review sites for senior care and services, suggests opening up the space in your rooms.
“The more space you allow in each of your rooms, the better,” writes Kristen Hicks, of SeniorAdvisor.com. “Make sure there are clear pathways and plenty of space to walk in without bumping into anything, especially in the rooms you spend a lot of time in. Unnecessary furniture can go to family members or be put on Craigslist. Just keep what you need now and get the rest out of the way so your home has more uninhibited space.”
- Clearing spaces also involves removing trip hazards, which can include rugs, unnecessary cords, pet beds and necessities.
- And while you’re moving things out of the way, move things you use frequently to within easy reach. Hicks suggests not making yourself climb on things or strain yourself reaching for items you know you’re going to use. “Think about what items in your kitchen, closet and pantry you regularly need access to and re-organize the space to make sure they’re all within easy reach.”
- Certain things can be added to the home that make it safer as well. Extra lighting can increase visibility and decrease the risk of falling in many places throughout the house. Stick-on lights and light tape along stairs, on the ground or in cabinets and drawers can be an affordable yet critical solution to visibility problems at home. Traction slips or non-skid tape can be added to bathroom floors and bathtubs and shower stalls, where water makes floors slippery and increases fall risk. Older adults and/or caregivers can also switch out door handles and faucets for levered handles. Opening doors or turning on the water can start to become a challenge for older adults with arthritis or weakness in their hands. Doorbells and smoke detectors are available that turn on lights, so a person who has trouble hearing will know when the doorbell rings. Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms can be modified with lights or bed shaker attachments so you can be warned during a fire or carbon monoxide leak.
- According to SeniorAdvisor.com, advanced home modifications can be done that make homes safer and more comfortable for years to come.
Installing grab bars in various places around the house, like in your bathroom, hallway and next to your bed can mean the difference between you catching yourself or falling down. Bathrooms, hallways and next to your bed are all smart spots to add grab bars.
Installing a walk-in tub and/or a stair lift are costly additions but they can decrease the chances for falls on stairs and getting in and out of the bathtub—two very real dangers for older adults with mobility issues.
Widening doorways and installing wheelchair ramps can increase independence for seniors who use wheelchairs.
While some modifications can be expensive, the cost of a wheelchair ramp or a walk-in tub is minimal compared to the importance of keeping your health and the cost of a hospital or nursing home stay in the event of a preventable accident. We make our homes safe for children when we have them by installing gates and other safety features. Why wouldn’t we do the same thing for ourselves or the ones we love as mobility needs change?
- Research on the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal supports the notion that a healthy diet can help prevent common health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. Experts on McMaster suggest trying these five simple, sensible and proven changes to diet to support healthy aging. McMaster suggests reducing sodium intake to lower blood pressure, which in turn decreases your risk of heart disease. You can start with simply cutting out processed foods.
Another good way to promote heart health is to eat more salmon, mackerel, tuna and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, According to McMaster. Fish-haters can take fish oil supplements.
Cutting out at least some saturated fat – common in meat and dairy – and replacing it with healthier unsaturated fats – found in plant oils – can lower our risk of heart disease.
A Mediterranean diet can provide the structure of a diet plan for those who need it. The diet encourages people to eat more vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. According to McMaster, there is evidence that a Mediterranean diet can improve blood sugar, insulin and blood pressure levels as well as help you lose weight.
And of course reducing portion sizes can help cut down on un-needed calories. Use a smaller plate to help avoid the health risks associated with weight gain.
- Exercise is one of the best ways to stay healthy as you age. The goal now is to sit less and exercise more, and strength training and aquatic exercise are two types of exercise with proven track records.
Weight bearing exercise is a sure defense against the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age. It can also help you avoid falls and reduce the loss of mobility and thus independence.
Aquatic exercise is a low impact workout that’s gentle on joints, bones and muscles, and studies suggest moderate to high-intensity water-based exercise is at least as effective as land-based exercise in promoting physical fitness in older adults. McMaster experts say research evidence suggests that aquatic exercise helps relieve pain, stiffness and other symptoms of osteoarthritis. Seniors don’t have to be strong swimmers or even swimmers at all. Kickboards, aquatic belts, water dumbbells and other equipment can help keep you buoyant and boost your workout.
- Staying active, engaged and social staves off depression and isolation which often go hand in hand and can shorten your life.
Social isolation and loneliness have long been the focus of research. And the literature is consistent in that both social isolation and loneliness are health risks. In fact, according to McMaster, studies have proven that the lack of social relationships is as strong a risk factor for mortality as are smoking, obesity or lack of physical activity. Similarly, older adults who are lonely have an increased risk of dying sooner and are more likely to experience a decline in their mobility, compared to those who are not lonely, the site says.
Find programs in your area for older adults, such as active living programs, seniors centers or transportation options to be able to attend programs. Seek out opportunities online or ask a computer-savvy loved one to search calendars on local things to do.
- Ask a health care provider or pharmacist to review your medications. Often older adults are taking multiple medications for the same condition or medications that are unnecessary or even harmful. There can also be adverse reactions between medications. To learn about possible pitfalls of taking multiple medications, read this.
- And last but certainly not least, know the myths about aging. Depression is not a normal part of aging, nor is a loss of sex drive. And getting old does not necessarily lead to weakness, frailty and dependence. The fact is, people have been staying in their own homes throughout history, and you can too. Of course there are certain conditions that necessitate care, but many older adults have every reason to believe they can age well in their own homes.