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Archive for March, 2019

Pet Ownership for Seniors: Pros and Cons

Monday , March 25 , 2019

Pet Ownership for Seniors: Pros and Cons

In his book Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande tells the story of how, in 1991, a young New York state physician named Bill Thomas set about a creating a wholesale culture change in the nursing home where he had been appointed medical director. He found the place depressing, full of listless and helpless people whose days passed largely without engagement or liveliness. After ruling out medical reasons for the apathy he saw, he settled on three causes for the residents’ poor quality of life: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.

As he set about combatting these ills, Dr. Thomas hit upon the idea of animal companions. Specifically, he fought for and got permission to introduce two dogs, four cats, and 100 birds. Yes, 100 birds! His goal was to introduce contact with the natural world into the unnatural environment of a nursing home. A side benefit was that helping to care for the animals gave residents a purpose and reason for living. It is good to be needed.

Seniors living at home, many of whom have limited interaction with other people, often adopt pets for the same reason.

Adopting any pet after the age of 50, however, can come with some unexpected complications. In this article, we’re going to go over the pros and cons of pet ownership in your later years, so you can help your loved one decide if it’s the right choice for them.

Pro: Owning a pet is great for your health. Having a dog, in particular, can help encourage physical activity in the form of daily walks and play time. In one study of older adults, dog walking was associated with lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits, and fewer limitations to daily living.

In addition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, owning a pet can decrease your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and the American Heart Association states that pets may help reduce your risk of heart disease.

Con: Caring for pets can be physically taxing. The flip side of that coin is that many elderly adults have physical limitations and caring for a pet may be too much for them to handle. Whether they’re young or old, many pets demand physical attention or may require special care of their own. For example, a puppy can be quite energetic and requires a lot of playtime, while an older dog may need help getting down the stairs to go outside. And smaller pets can require just as much work: rodents, fish, and birds all have cages which need to be cleaned weekly – a task an older adult may find too physically demanding.

Pro: Owning a pet reduces feelings of depression. Carlyn Montes De Oca, author of Dog as My Doctor, Cat as My Nurse says, “An animal companion in your life gives you a strong sense of purpose. Dogs and cats make us take care of them, and that makes us take care of ourselves.” And indeed, many studies show that owning a pet can help break the cycle of mild to moderate depression. Why? At least in part because a pet can remind you that you’re not alone and offers unconditional love.

Con: Pet ownership is a big commitment. Physical exercise isn’t the only commitment that some pets require. No matter what type of animal you own, it’s a commitment of money, time, and energy. Every pet requires daily care, routine veterinary visits, food, toys, and attention.

Pro: Animals encourage living in the ‘now’. It’s a fact: many older adults spend a lot of time thinking about what’s in store for them: potential financial hardships, possible illness or injury, loss of friends, even death. But a pet encourages them to live in the moment and truly enjoy what’s happening RIGHT NOW – a very welcome change for many.

Con: Certain animals may outlive you. Many older adults worry about what will happen to their pets once they’re gone. With smaller animals, it’s not such a big concern: hamsters, guinea pigs, and other rodents usually only live two to three years. But a kitten or a dog can live well past 15 years old, depending on breed, and many birds can live for decades.

Pro: No matter what kind of animal you get, you may be saving a life. I’m going to end on a pro and say that if you or your elderly loved one adopts a pet from a shelter, you are likely saving its life. For many older adults, this provides a huge sense of purpose. And because they feel responsible for this animal’s life and well-being, they are more likely to take better care of themselves.

Final thoughts

Adopting a pet at any age is a huge responsibility, but it takes on even greater implications for the elderly. Still, the health and wellness benefits almost always outweigh the cons.

The key to successful pet ownership at an advanced age is simply to plan.

  • Assign a designee to care for the animal in the event your older loved one becomes unable to do so
  • Research local dog walkers that may be able to help out with daily activities (often, they can also provide play time and feedings in addition to walks)
  • Locate a mobile vet clinic in the area so your loved one doesn’t have to try to leave the house with an animal

Do you have an elderly loved one with pets? Have they found that it’s beneficial for their health, or more of a burden?

Posted in: Aging

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“Prejudice Against Our Future Self”: The Damage of Ageism

Monday , March 18 , 2019

“Prejudice Against Our Future Self”: The Damage of Ageism

In America we often see aging solely in terms of debilitation—a process that robs people of their strength, ability, beauty, and health. Ashton Applewhite disagrees. “Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured,” she says. “It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.”

Applewhite, a Brooklyn-based writer and activist, is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Her widely viewed TED talk on re-envisioning aging makes a compelling case for throwing out the false and harmful stereotypes we learn early on and thoughtlessly perpetuate.

Why, in a world where bigotry is fought on every front, is discrimination against the elderly still tolerated? The “old geezer” stereotype isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s not just emotionally harmful to older adults, but physically as well.

In fact, a 2016 article in the journal of the Association of Healthcare Journalists reports that studies show “real mental and physical consequences” of being exposed to ageism, including greater stress, slower recovery time from health setbacks, decreased will to live, and a shortened life span.


What is ageism?

You’ve likely heard the terms ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ . . . but ‘ageism’? What’s that? Discrimination against the elderly isn’t discussed nearly as often in mainstream media.

The term, coined in 1968 by gerontologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Robert N. Butler, refers to a basic denial of older people’s human rights. Butler first used the phrase during a Washington Post interview for a story titled “Age and Race Fears Seen in Housing Opposition” – an article about the public’s resistance to building a housing complex for the elderly poor in their high-class neighborhood.


How ageism harms older adults

Not much has changed since the 1960s. Many people today still mock, antagonize, belittle, or otherwise discriminate against older adults. The reason is likely the same: they don’t want to imagine ever being enfeebled themselves.

This attitude, however, is highly harmful for the elderly as well as those around them.

Ageism can:

  • Harm the overall health of older adults. Studies show that those who are subject to age-related discrimination can suffer from higher levels of stress, depression, respiratory problems, and heart disease.
  • Lead to emotional hardship. Older people are often made to feel like they are a burden or that others see them as less valuable, leading to low self-esteem and isolation. This, in turn, can also lead to physical decline.
  • Cause mental decline. A 2018 study from Yale University showed that negative beliefs about aging may be linked to brain changes related to Alzheimer’s Disease. Specifically, people who have more negative thoughts about aging tend to have a greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles – two conditions related to mental decline in dementia.
  • Harm the future health of young people today. The same Yale study found that people who hold negative stereotypes about aging are less likely to be healthy in their own later years.


What can you do to fight ageism?

You likely have older loved ones in your life right now that you care about and want to see happy. In addition (whether or not you want to think about it), you will likely be an elderly person yourself one day.

The best thing you can do for both your loved ones – and yourself – is to fight the stereotypes surrounding aging:


  • Use positive language. Think about how you discuss aging and age-related conditions: You may not even realize that you make negative jokes or help reinforce harmful stereotypes. Make a conscious choice to use positive language in regard to elders and aging.
  • Share positive images of aging. Have you ever purchased an “over the hill” birthday card? Shared a meme about an older person unable to figure out technology? While they may seem harmless, things like that help perpetrate stereotypes. Instead, seek out books, movies, or images that portray the joy in growing older and share those!
  • Call people out for ageist comments. When you hear someone make an insensitive joke or a cruel comment, bring it up just as you would any other inappropriate remark. Often, people don’t realize that what they’re saying is harmful and will be apologetic.
  • Engage with older adults. Don’t just talk the talk – walk the walk. Volunteer at a senior center, take your older loved ones out to lunch, invite your younger friends over for game night with your grandmother. By taking the time to hang out socially with older adults, you will help show others that it’s not something to be avoided or mocked. This isn’t just to be kind; each generation benefits from spending time with one another.
  • Avoid “Elderspeak.” It is galling to have your life experience and achievements erased by people who speak to you in a patronizing, over-familiar fashion. Don’t address seniors by their first names unless they invite you to do so, and certainly don’t use endearments. Keep in mind the words of Maggie Kuhn, founder of Gray Panthers: “The worst indignity is to be given a bedpan by a stranger who calls you by your first name.”


Final thoughts

Like all prejudices, ageism is dehumanizing. It can have far-reaching implications for the physical, emotional, and social health of older adults. Each of us can work every day to help reduce stereotypes and harmful attitudes through our own positive outlooks.

Tell us – what do you do to help fight ageism?


Posted in: Aging

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The Dangers of Dehydration in the Elderly

Monday , March 11 , 2019

The Dangers of Dehydration in the Elderly

New clients come to us for a wide variety of reasons. One common cause that always surprises me is that they became dehydrated and wound up in the hospital. After all, running water is almost universally available in America, and most people have bottles of water in their home as well.

How difficult can it be to get plenty to drink?

Turns out, it’s not that simple. There are a number of reasons why many older people fail to get the fluid intake their bodies need to function properly, and the health consequences can be very serious. Keep reading for some of the common causes of dehydration in the elderly and what you can do to help:

What is dehydration?

Let’s start with the basics: what is dehydration? It’s normal to lose fluids from your body every day through sweating, urinating and even breathing. Usually, you replace those liquids through eating and drinking, but if you lose too much water and don’t replace it, you become dehydrated.

Dehydration is far more than just not drinking enough water or being a little bit thirsty, though: It’s when the body’s water levels are so low that it disrupts normal functioning.

Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how much fluid is missing from your body, and dehydration can affect absolutely anyone. Unfortunately, however, it’s a problem that affects the elderly far more often than any other population. In fact, according to geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, adults between the ages of 85 and 99 are admitted to the hospital for dehydration 6 times more often than other adults.

Complications of dehydration

Not getting enough fluids can be dangerous for anyone, but when it comes to the elderly, it’s far more likely to be serious. If not identified and treated, dehydration can quickly lead to significant health problems including dizziness, low blood pressure, confusion, rapid pulse, and loss of consciousness. In cases of advanced dehydration, according to the Mayo Clinic, patients may even experience seizures, kidney failure, brain swelling, and coma.

What causes dehydration in the elderly?

At the most basic level, dehydration in the elderly is caused in the same way as dehydration in the rest of the adult population: not enough fluids in the body. The issue is that older adults often suffer from one of more physical ailments which help hasten the process.

For example:

  • As adults age, they tend to lose muscle mass throughout the body. As muscle is the main storehouse for water, this means that an older adult will dehydrate faster than a younger person of similar size.
  • Many medications commonly prescribed to older adults, such as blood pressure medication or laxatives, can contribute to dehydration.
  • Undiagnosed infections, such as those affecting the lungs or bladder, can lead to loss of fluids.
  • Older adults do not feel thirst as keenly as younger adults and therefore may not realize that they need water.

Another problem we frequently see, although not a medical issue, is that many seniors who take diuretics simply avoid water because they don’t want to take extra trips to the bathroom or are concerned about accidents.

What are the signs of dehydration?

If you care for an elderly loved one, you should always be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of dehydration. Some of the most common include:

  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Too few bathroom trips throughout the day
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps

More serious symptoms may include:

  • Rapid breathing and heartrate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sunken eyes
  • Convulsions
  • Sleepiness or confusion
  • Dizziness

Helping your older adult stay hydrated

Because the elderly don’t feel thirst as keenly as younger adults, it can be difficult to convince them that they need to drink a glass of water. Luckily, there are several ways you can help your older loved one get enough fluids without a fight. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Offer water that’s lightly flavored with fruit juice or has a squeezed orange wedge, or try Pedialyte, Gatorade, or coconut water. Just remember to avoid caffeinated beverages, as they are dehydrating!
  • Offer foods that have a high water content, such as ice pops, soups, yogurt, or Jell-O (can be sugar-free).
  • Make a chart so your loved one can visually keep track of how much water or other fluids they’ve had throughout the day.
  • Invest in technology aimed to help prevent dehydration:
    • “Smart hydration reminder” Ulla is a timer you can attach to any water bottle that will light up and blink several times each hour, reminding your older adult that it’s time to drink.
    • A water bottle like H2O Pal, which sends personalized, timely notifications to an app on a smart phone or other device. If your loved one likes to play on their tablet, this is a great way to “gamify” hydration!
    • Try a wearable hydration monitor. Although they are generally marketed to athletes, the devices (which let users know current hydration levels and how much they should drink), are just as beneficial for seniors.

Final thoughts

Dehydration can be a tricky problem when it comes to the elderly, especially because so many other factors can come into play. But with a little thoughtful planning (that takes your loved one’s needs and preferences into consideration), it is a problem that can be greatly minimized.

Please note: if your older adult is displaying any symptoms of dehydration, you should call their doctor’s office right away. If they seem seriously dehydrated, call an ambulance. Dehydration can very quickly lead to grave consequences in the elderly if not dealt with in a timely fashion.

Tell us: how have you helped your older loved one stay on top of their hydration goals?

Posted in: Aging, Dementia, Health

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