Staying Safe and Healthy in Old Age
Older people have special health care needs and considerations. As people age, their bodies and minds may start to decline, and they may become less energetic and mobile and start to have health problems. They may take medications and need more medical attention. In addition, the elderly tend to have more chronic and potentially life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes, heart problems or cancer, and are more vulnerable to infection, adverse weather conditions and other stresses.
Many health issues facing the elderly affect the body, but others affect the mind. For example, an older person may become seriously depressed over the death of a partner or loved one, or because of illness, chronic pain or immobility. He or she may also become more forgetful or slightly confused at times or eventually develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In many instances, the special health needs and concerns that emerge as part of the aging process may simply require added attention, vigilance and care-giving on the part of family members and friends. However, other more serious conditions, such as severer Alzheimer’s, may require long-term or nursing-home care.
People with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia should consider enrolling in a program, such as the MedicAlert foundation, for live 24-hour emergency response services for wandering and medical emergencies.
To help provide aging family members with the extra care and medical attention they may need, it is important to be award of the issues and special dangers they may start to fact as they get older, and to know the special steps to take in preventing and responding to medical emergencies involving an older person.
- Get regular health exams and check-ups, and don’t put off going to your physician or medical practitioner if you suspect a health problem. Too often people wait too long to seek care about symptoms that could have been treated successfully, if caught early on.
- Get plenty of exercise. Aerobic and other forms of exercise for agility, strength and balance — even when started late in life — are associated with a one- to two-year increase in life expectancy, greater independence and a reduced risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, hip fractures and depression. Examples of effective exercise include “mall walking,” swimming, aerobics, treadmill walking, stationary-bike riding, weight training, gardening, dancing and yoga. Talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
- Supplement a nutritious diet with calcium and vitamin D, typically 1,500 mg per day of calcium and 750 U of vitamin D for women. These supplements will strengthen bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and related fractures, especially in older women. Your doctor can advise you on appropriate doses, and may also recommend bone-building drugs if you are at risk for osteoporosis.
- Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day, because it can increase the risk of falling. Also be aware of any effect alcohol may have on any prescription medications you are taking.
- Always keep emergency numbers in large print on every phone, as well as your physician’s and a friend or family member’s number. You may also want to consider wearing an alarm device that will summon help if you cannot do so yourself.
- Ask your doctor about getting an annual flu vaccine and pneumonia vaccine.
- If you live with someone who is also taking medications, consider asking the pharmacist to clearly differentiate your medication from theirs, perhaps by color coding the bottles or printing each person’s name in large type, so that you do not take the wrong medication by mistake.
- If you have multiple prescriptions, check with your doctor and your pharmacist about possible side effects or dangerous interactions. Keep in mind that drugs that adversely affect alertness, such as sleeping aids and pain medications, increase the risk of falls.
- Take all your medication bottles with you to every doctor’s visit and especially to the Emergency Department. Adverse reactions to medication are very common in seniors because they are often taking many different medications prescribed by different doctors. Medication errors and bad reactions are preventable; do not assume that your doctor knows all of your medications.
- Legalize and have with you an Advance Directive. An Advance Directive is a formal statement about how you would like to be cared for in the event of a loss of consciousness, a coma or life-threatening illness. Preparing such a document is critical to reducing emotional stress on a family should a life-threatening event occur.
Trust your instincts if you or the older person you care for seems unwell. Older bodies can respond differently to illness and symptoms can be non-specific or vague. If an elder is in pain or is not acting normally, seek medical care. In addition to chest pain and musculoskeletal injuries, pay special attention to abdominal pain. Pain in an older person’s stomach may indicate a serious health problem and should be closely monitored.
- Every family member should take a CPR course.
- Use MedicAlert medical identification to identify medical problems, medications and allergies.
- Make sure medications are taken properly. Measure out each day’s dose. Make sure pills do not get mixed.
- Have medications checked by a physician at least twice a year to make sure the dosage is still correct and that there are no harmful interactions.
- Have a physician identify, manage and prevent medical problems.
- Install safety rails in the tub and shower.
- Prevent falls by not using throw rugs and steering clear of obstructions.
- Consider using a name tag with your phone number in case of unconsciousness, dementia or disorientation.
- Talk to a doctor about an advance medical directive or Living Will, which allows someone to make choices about medical care in advance before they become too sick to communicate. In some cases, a Living Will allows you to choose someone to make decisions for you if you are unable to do so. For information on Advance Directives or Living Walls, ask your doctor or attorney or contact the state medical society, the state bar association, your local chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or Choice in Dying, which offers state-specific Advance Directives at 800-989-WILL. In addition, MedicAlert Foundation is a recognized provider of Advance Directive orders. Certain states have legislated the MedicAlert ID to serve as Do Not Resucitate “DNR” and Physicians Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (“POLST”) notification. For more information, contact MedicAlert Foundation at 800-ID-ALERT (800-432-5378).