The proportion of elderly people in our population has risen steadily. In the UK at the moment, about 14 per cent of the population are 65 or over, This is due to a number of factors. Many diseases have been overcome; we are better fed and housed than previously; we have better welfare services than were available to earlier generations.
This does not mean that we can all expect to live on to a great age without any illnesses. Unfortunately, some illnesses become more apparent as we age. Old age itself is not a disease, and very few people die simply of ‘old age’; rather, from the complications which appear when the ageing body cannot cope with disease.
Old age need not be a catalogue of diseases. Many elderly people enjoy life as never before, though at a rather quieter pace. Understanding of the causes of some of the problems of the elderly can make their life a lot easier,
Many visual problems of old age can be overcome with the use of the correct glasses. When these are worn, other problems like headaches often clear up. Eyes should be checked annually by an optician. If vision is badly deteriorated, go to a specialist hospital’s outpatient unit where advice on aids for the partially sighted can also be obtained.
Deterioration of hearing causes many elderly people needless distress. Certainly, acuteness of hearing may be less with advancing years,
but actual deafness can usually be eased by use of a hearing aid, which can restore almost normal hearing and eliminate the embarrassment which the hard of hearing often feel. In addition, wax often causes partial deafness, and when removed after softening with drops which can be bought at a chemists’, hearing is often markedly improved.
When dentures are worn, changes in the shape of the jaw take place in old age, which can affect their fit. Loose dentures make eating uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing, so see the dentist if they give any trouble. Don’t neglect remaining natural teeth either; regular dental checks are essential.
Many elderly people complain of difficulty in sleeping. We actually sleep progressively less as we age, and the elderly don’t need much sleep. Many also add to their total sleeping time by taking odd naps during the day. Elderly people may not take sufficient exercise to tire them thoroughly. Rather than asking the doctor for sleeping tablets, which are best avoided unless absolutely necessary, try some commonsense measures which may improve sleeping habits, or allow prolonged sleep.
Don’t take tea or coffee before going to bed. They are mild stimulants, which will keep you awake. Instead, take a warm milky drink, or even a small amount of alcoholic drink, to help you relax. Don’t drink too much of anything late at night, or you will have to get up to use the toilet.
Make sure your mattress is comfortable, and that you have sufficient warm clothes on the bed. If you can’t sleep once you are in bed, don’t lie there tossing and turning; put the light on and read until you are really tired.
Many elderly people are now suffering as a result of the ill-fitting shoes they wore in childhood. Bunions, corns, and ingrowing toenails can be excruciatingly painful, and need proper treatment by a chiropodist if they are really bad. Always try to wear soft comfortable shoes, and consult the doctor about foot problems which cause much pain.
It is only too easy to tell an elderly person to take plenty of exercise, but the elderly do not have the stamina and reserves of strength possessed by a younger person. Indeed, too much exercise of the wrong sort could be harmful.
Violent exercise should also be avoided as far as possible. For example, if you propose to take up jogging, you would need a thorough check up by your doctor first, to make sure your heart could take the unaccustomed strain. And even then, you would have to work up to it very gradually.
Most people are content with more leisurely forms of exercise, which don’t carry such risks. Walking is probably the best form of exercise. Don’t push yourself to walk too far. Several short strolls are better than a long hike, preferably with a rest between strolls.
Swimming is another excellent form of exercise which works on most of the muscles of the body. There is no need to be self-conscious about wearing a swimming costume; if you can’t swim, it’s never too late to learn, at classes run by many local Colleges of Further Education.
Exercise need not mean getting the whole body into action. Writing and knitting are good for stiff fingers, and the more you exercise, the looser your joints will become.
All joints tend to become stiff with lack of use, especially the many joints in the spine. Regular exercise keeps the ligaments which join the bones together quite flexible, and makes movement easier. Constant exercise will also keep muscles healthy. Muscles easily waste away with disuse, as sometimes happens under the cast on a broken limb.
When you start exercise, your movement will probably be restricted to some extent. Don’t force movement in any joint. Just try to move each joint naturally, and stop if it becomes too uncomfortable. Each day you will get a little more movement in the joint, until you can move it quite freely once more. Then keep up the exercise to maintain your newfound freedom of movement.
The heart is mainly muscle, so like any other muscle, it needs exercise to keep it in good condition. Inactivity means that the heart seldom has to work hard, so it becomes soft and flabby, and the heart muscle which pumps blood around the entire body shrinks in size. Then the heart cannot cope with overloads, leading to faintness and shortness of breath when you take any heavy exercise.
The heart and blood vessels have to work hard throughout life, so it is not surprising that they are not so efficient in old age.
Regular exercise keeps the heart working at its peak, and also improves blood flow around the entire body.
Restrictions or alterations in the blood flow lead to a good many of the problems of old age, such as angina, which causes severe chest pains on exercise. This is a warning sign, not to be ignored. Get medical advice as soon as possible.
Don’t put too much of a strain on your circulation.
Often appeals more than larger, bland-tasting meals. This lack of interest in food means that elderly people sometimes have an unbalanced diet. If they have dentures, they may find fruit difficult to eat, so they do not have an adequate vitamin intake. They may feel it is too much trouble, or too expensive, to eat adequate meals, or may eat convenience foods which may not contain the right balance of nutrients.
Constipation often bothers the elderly, and can usually be avoided by eating plenty of vegetables, which are cheap, or by eating cereals containing added bran to provide roughage.
Sitting down for a long time, or in an awkward position, can interfere with the blood flow. If your circulation is not in good shape, you may feel dizzy when you stand up, as blood drains away from the brain. It is always best to get up slowly, especially if you have been sitting for a long while.
There are several warning signs that things are not well with the heart, and they should not be ignored. The doctor can usually treat heart problems provided they are identified early enough.
Tell your doctor if you experience dizziness, palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pains, or swollen ankles. None of these necessarily means heart trouble, but it pays to have a check up to avoid trouble later on.
If you do have a heart problem, take your doctor’s advice seriously. Stick rigidly to the dosage he pre scribes for any medicine, and take the medicines at the proper time of day. Don’t take two doses just because you might have forgotten the earlier one; make a chart to help you remember when to take them. And give up smoking completely. It will make your condition worse.
Like sleep, elderly people need less food than the young. They take less exercise, and thus burn up less of the energy provided by food. If they do eat heartily, they usually become overweight, which is in itself a hazard, and puts an undue strain on the heart and other organs. Far better to keep slim, though not too slim, as the body needs some fat reserves.
The sense of taste is not so acute in the elderly, so food may not taste so appetising. Eating small savoury meals
Being overweight puts an additional strain on the joints. In old age, joints begin to show some wear and tear, as the body’s repair mechanism becomes less effective, and this usually shows first in knees, hips, and the spine, which take all the weight of the body.
Worn or damaged joints usually become swollen and painful. Don’t accept this as a normal part of growing old, as the doctor can almost always prescribe something to make the joints less painful, and to reduce swelling.
The usual causes are common disorders like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or gout. Of these, osteoarthritis tends to cause chronic nagging pain and stiffness, while rheumatoid arthritis and gout flare up into painful episodes, which can be controlled with the proper medical treatment.
If you get joint pains, always check with your doc- tor before starting a course of exercises, as these could further damage your joints.
SEX AND THE
Sexual activity can continue well into old age. In fact, it can continue as long as both partners wish, the exercise alone being beneficial, quite apart from the pleasure it brings. Elderly women sometimes find intercourse painful, due to the drying up of vaginal secretions after the menopause. This minor problem can be overcome with the use of suitable lubricants. Your doctor can provide advice on these.
In spite of exercises, mobility is a problem to many old and infirm people, some of whom are very unsteady on their feet. The home can be organized to make life a lot easier and more safe. Polished floors are an obvious hazard, as are loose or torn carpets, which can cause a fall. Severe handicaps need special means to overcome them. A walking frame can help even the unsteadiest person, providing a secure handhold to rest on. Handrails can be fitted to the walls near the toilet and on the stairs, making life much safer. For the elderly person with arthritic hands, special gadgets can be obtained for fitting to taps, opening bottles, and coping with all the other everyday problems which are so difficult if the hand cannot grip strongly. Obtain details by writing to the Disabled Living Foundation or from a community nurse or social worker.