From a Caregiver’s Eyes: Common Senior Ailments That Make Caregiving Harder
Seniors in the United States are expected to live longer than any previous generation. The current life expectancy is just over 78 years, based on reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, that doesn’t mean seniors are staying healthy into old age. Per the CDC, only 41 percent of seniors over the age of 65 report being in excellent or very good health. Many seniors struggle with chronic medical conditions that must be carefully managed, not just by health professionals, but also by professional caregivers.
We spoke with several professional caregivers about common ailments among seniors that can complicate caregiving and how you can help improve the quality of life for your aging loved one.
Vision loss can pose significant challenges for family caregivers. One in three people over the age of 65 will experience some type of vision loss. The most common causes of loss are age-related macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.
Poor eyesight can cause many caregiving challenges for seniors and their families. The first concern is safety, as low vision can increase the risk of falls and accidents. However, it can also make medication management difficult, mainly if your loved one is unable to see what is written on the label. Additionally, poor vision can lead to isolation and increased feelings of depression. Older adults who previously loved to read or watch movies can lose the ability to enjoy some of their favorite activities.
Limited mobility poses more challenges to caregiving. Arthritis affects almost 50 percent of adults over the age of 65, making it one of the most common chronic conditions seniors must manage. Osteoporosis, another common diagnosis in seniors, can increase the risk of fractures or falls, leading to significant disability. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, one-in-three women and one-in-five men will experience a fracture caused by osteoporosis. Falls caused by weak bones or arthritis can make it painful or difficult to complete day to day tasks and prevent your loved one from being physically active.
As a family caregiver, preventing your loved one from getting hurt is likely your primary concern. Janet Stuart, RN and former supervisor of professional caregivers, states that seniors with mobility problems are particularly at risk for injury inside the home. She suggests that keeping the house free of clutter or other potential hazards should be the first step to keeping your loved one with mobility challenges safe.
Staying active is also essential for health and well-being for people of all ages, but this may be challenging for those with pain or difficulty moving. Consider speaking to your loved one's doctor to come up with a plan for staying physically active. This may mean a referral to a physical therapist or exercise physiologist who specializes in working around mobility difficulties.
While we often focus on physical health, struggles with mental health can also make caregiving much harder. The CDC estimates that up to 20 percent of adults 55 and older have depression or anxiety. Physical illnesses, loneliness and substance abuse can exacerbate mental health concerns. Additionally, many mental health concerns go undiagnosed in older adults as they are frequently more focused on physical problems or think they should handle it themselves. Mental Health America reports that 58 percent of people over 65 believe it is “normal” to become depressed as we age.
Screening for mental health concerns is a first step to helping your loved one. Physical activity, therapy and more social engagement can also help, as can keeping their mind active and engaged in learning. The important thing is to address any mental health concerns as soon as possible to help your loved one live a long and happy life.
Did you know that as we age, it is more common to have difficulties with chewing or swallowing? Missing teeth or poorly fitting dentures may cause chewing problems. Swallowing difficulties, called dysphagia, can happen when the esophagus becomes weak or other physical changes occur.
Nicole Keels-McGruder, a professional caregiver, states that caring for seniors with swallowing or chewing difficulties can cause significant challenges. She recalls a senior she cared for, “who could not drink thin fluids and all of her foods had to be pureed. A thickener had to be added to her drinks. Making sure that she was properly elevated during meals was also something that I learned the hard way. Because of her condition, I stayed in the room with her for an additional 30 minutes to make sure that all of her food was down.” Nicole added that the time it took to prepare, puree, thicken and ensure proper positioning was much more demanding of her time and energy.
Getting help with food preparation or supervision of meals can help your loved one if they have been diagnosed with dysphagia. A professional caregiver can help relieve some of the pressure in caring for and supervising a loved one with dysphagia or other swallowing concerns.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Memory loss caused by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can be very frustrating for seniors and their families. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in ten people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia.
Sr. Christina Neumann, who works in a home caring for the elderly and disabled says these conditions can lead to significant caregiving challenges. “One of the biggest concerns I face is people suffering from dementia. They may appear to be healthy physically, but they are unable to lead a normal, healthy life without intensive supervision. They need frequent reminders and even re-direction, at times.”
Safety, self-care and the need for supervision are just some challenges that many families face when caring for a loved one with dementia. If your parent or senior loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer's or any form of dementia, it is vital to consider professional help because caring for a loved one with dementia is a massive undertaking of which many people just aren't prepared.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, older adults are more susceptible to infectious diseases. Common infectious illnesses that can impact the elderly include urinary tract infections and digestive and respiratory illnesses, like pneumonia and influenza. It is also more challenging to diagnose people over 65 because they don't always present with typical symptoms. Instead, they can experience more generalized symptoms like loss of appetite, a change in mental status or incontinence. A difficulty with a diagnosis can lead to prolonged discomfort and a higher risk of hospitalization.
For family caregivers, it is essential to understand the signs and symptoms of common infections to start treatment as soon as possible. Look for sudden changes in behavior, confusion, skin infections, chills, difficulty breathing, cough, fever, digestive disturbances or lack of appetite. These symptoms should be evaluated immediately by a medical doctor who can determine the best course of action. An annual flu shot is also recommended for all seniors.
Home Care Demands a Village
All this is to say that you should genuinely consider your role in your aging parent's home care. Ailments like these are so common among the elderly, the degree of care your loved one needs is sure to evolve. While you may be able to handle things initially, are you truly ready to juggle a parent's worsening ailment with your own family and responsibilities?
Many of these conditions that impact older adults are chronic and require regular management. A professional caregiver can be instrumental in navigating your loved one’s home care.