May is Older American’s Month — a time when community organizations shine spotlights on the contributions of older citizens. It seems the perfect time to reflect upon the lives of the seniors we know personally and to look for ways that we, as family members and caregivers, can contribute to their inclusion, wellness, and independence.
Older Americans by the Numbers
The Administration on Aging’s Profile of Older Americans provides a look at gender, marital status, and life expectancy.
- About one in every seven Americans is 65 or older — that’s about 44.7 million people.
- Of those 44.7 million, 25.1 million are women; 19.6 million are men — a ratio of 128 women to 100 men. At age 85 and over, this ratio increases to about 196:100.
- 65-year-olds can expect to live an additional 19.3 years.
- 72 percent of older men are married, compared with 46 percent of women.
- About 28 percent of all noninstitutionalized seniors live alone.
What Keeps Today’s Seniors Up at Night?
Chronic Conditions: According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, lung disease, and other chronic diseases affect 80 percent of older adults and are often what cost seniors their independence. Roughly 68 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have two or more chronic diseases, and 36 percent have four or more.
A Higher Risk of Falling: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans 65 and older fall each year, making falls the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal hospital admissions among older citizens. It’s important to note that falling once doubles the chances of falling again.
Aging at Home: Maintaining their independence ranks high among the list of concerns for seniors as they age. According to the AARP, nearly 90 percent of people over age 65 want to stay in their homes as long as possible, with 42 percent ranking self-governance as one of the top three reasons why.
Your Vital Role As a Caregiver
“People have so much more autonomy when living in their own homes, even if an aid comes in to help,” says Gail Gibson Hunt, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Caregiving. “Caregivers understand that, and they really want to help.”
So here’s what you can do:
Senior Safety First
When it comes to healthcare, older patients and family caregivers should fully engage in shared decision making with physicians.
“Understanding the risks and benefits of treatment is a big part of shared decision making,” Hunt says. “If somebody is diagnosed with cancer, for instance, the family really needs to understand how it will affect their loved one’s ability to live independently. Will he be able to live alone and still have his hobbies, or is he going to be dependent on others from now on?”
Vital prevention mechanisms — such as dietary considerations — can also stem from healthcare discussions, she adds.
To help your loved ones reduce the risk of falling:
- Investigate ability-appropriate exercise routines.
- Be sure they adhere to their medication regimen.
- Fall-proof the home.
Also, contact your local Area Agency on Aging to find out what community-based programs are available in your area. And, should there be a fall or other emergency when your loved ones are alone, be sure they have the ability to access the help they need with a medical alert device.
Leverage Technology for Solutions
An active social life can improve your senior’s quality of life and ward off depression, possibly extending their independence. When you can’t be there in person, technology offers your senior countless options for social engagement.
“Older people can be encouraged to participate in online communities that they’re interested in and to explore new areas to help keep them alert and tied in with other people,” Hunt says. “Maybe they can’t get out of the house as much as they used to, but they can share their thoughts in chat rooms and in Internet communities, and that’s good for the exercise of their brains.”
Computers and tablets can also remove barriers to communication for those with poor vision or hearing impairments.
“Low vision and poor hearing are just are so isolating,” Hunt says. “Older people can reach a point where even hearing aids don’t help, and they’re really struggling to communicate.”
And when it comes to caregiving, sharing the responsibilities with others creates a win-win.
“It can be helpful for the care recipient if they have more family caregivers looking in on them and paying attention to them,” Hunt says. “And that can help them maintain their stay in the community longer.”
As the aging population continues to grow, it is important that we take steps to help seniors continue to live in their own homes to keep them healthy and enjoying life.