Celebrating Seniors’ Independence & Helping Them Maintain It

Independence is a goal held dear by many seniors and their loved ones, not just on the 4th of July but year-round.

Families celebrate Independence Day in the US with picnics, parades, baseball games, concerts, and fireworks!

While the nation celebrates Independence Day, many family caregivers continue to provide daily care for their senior loved ones.

We hope to spend time with extended family, reminiscing about the fun times the family shared on past July 4 holidays.

It is also a good time for caregivers and other family members to think about what types of things we can do to help senior loved ones maintain their own independence in the years to come.

Aging with Independence

Successful aging is often expressed in terms of a person’s functional independence.

Functional independence is the level at which we can be mobile and perform our own activities of daily living (ADL). Someone who is successfully aging will have a minimal decline in physical function.

A person who is aging successfully will be actively engaged in life, have a high level of cognitive function, and have avoided chronic disease or risk factors for disease. Also, if there is an impairment the person has made the most of their limitations through adaptation.

Many believe our measurement of aging is a matter of perception. When asked about successful aging, 50% of adults say they are aging successfully when in fact only 19% of them were doing so, as determined by clinicians.

Both self and clinical assessment are important.

There is a tool that can be used to measure the level of functional independence your senior now has and help you decide what care may be needed to keep them independent. The Functional Independence Measure (FIM) scale assesses physical and cognitive status. The Functional Assessment Measure (FAM) adds twelve items to the FIM, including community integration, emotional status, attention, orientation, and reading/writing skills.

Both of these measures are completed by a healthcare professional. These tools could help family caregivers understand where there may be gaps in functional status and plan a course of action for improving our senior loved ones’ independence.

Mobility is Key to Senior Independence

Mobility is a major factor in being independent. Their ability to age in place will depend on how well seniors can move their bodies, whether it is for walking, standing up, reaching, turning over in bed, or climbing stairs.

This physical motion is essential for independence in activities of daily living such as dressing, eating, and toileting.

Walking involves many physical abilities, including muscle strength, sensory function such as vision, cognition, and motor control. How capable seniors are when walking is predictive of their future independence.

Seniors who walk at speeds faster than 1.0 meter/second have greater independence when performing activities of daily living. They have reduced hospitalizations as well. In contrast, walking speeds of less than 0.6 meters/second are associated with dependence for ADLs and more hospitalizations for seniors.

Being mobile means that your senior can leave their home and participate in activities in the community without help. Without mobility, their independence is threatened.

Social Engagement and Independence

Successfully aging seniors are able to maintain their social engagement within the family and among their communities. Those who are no longer able or desirous of being socially active will have more difficulty maintaining their independence as they age.

Even when a senior is physically well, able to be mobile, and perform their own ADLs, they may still have difficulty with socialization and independence due to one or more factors limiting their engagement.

Perhaps a physically functional senior has no access to transportation or finances that would allow socialization and community engagement. Maybe their community is unsafe for them to walk alone due to either predators or infrastructure, such as poorly maintained sidewalks, no nearby retail outlets, or unsafe traffic patterns that put pedestrians at risk.

Another scenario limiting seniors is one of a spousal caregiver who can’t leave his or her loved one alone at home, leading to isolation.

Being homebound due to external environmental factors can lead to isolated seniors who are now unable to be functionally independent. This, in turn, could lead to a decline in functional status and a loss of independence.

Prevent and Cope with Loss of Independence

Aging is bound to catch up to every one of us. Hopefully it takes a long time to negatively affect us and our senior loved ones. Maintaining physical abilities and independence is a goal most seniors strive to achieve and family caregivers can encourage and support.

Here are some things we can encourage and help senior loved ones to do in order to manage their own aging .

  1. Stay physically active — every day! It will be necessary to keep moving and strengthening muscles to prevent functional decline, loss of mobility, falls and possible loss of independence. Help your senior loved one find activities they enjoy and get them going! Walk, dance, golf, garden, swim, play active video games, or just move doing something fun each day.
  2. Engage socially — Participate in events and activities outside of the home. Go shopping, go to a movie, go to church, go to a festival, go to a class, volunteer in the community, talk with family members, enter a support group, and take every opportunity to be social. Find a buddy and do things together.
  3. Observe what they can and can’t do — Take a close look at what your senior is and isn’t capable of doing. Is it something your senior can improve or do they need to find an accommodation to continued independence? Focus on the positive and maintain all aspects of good health.
  4. Learn to accept help — If a senior’s family members want to help, if you can afford home care, or if you qualify for community benefits, say yes and schedule the help. Knowing support is needed and accepting the additional help will prolong the time your senior can remain independent. But, your senior should be encouraged to do everything they can to help her or himself. Doing for them things they can do themselves puts their independence at risk.
  5. Join the digital world — If your senior wants to be independent, some technology innovations can help them stay at home. There are medical monitors that will help them stay well and out of the hospital. There are tech solutions that will help them stay safe at home. There are internet connections and social media platforms that, when used with computers or mobile devices, will help them stay socially engaged. There are cognitive games that will help keep their minds sharp so that they can function optimally as they age. Using a smartphone or tablet with a variety of apps will give them opportunities for learning something new, engaging with others, keeping their brain sharp, and preventing isolation and depression.
  6. Make home improvements — Make modifications, including small and big renovations, to their living space that will help your senior be safe but also live independently. Install cabinets that can pull down for ease in reaching their contents. Install adequate lighting to prevent trips and falls. Make access into and around the house easier with wider doorways, fewer steps, handrails and safe flooring. Add internet access so that all the latest technology gadgets can be connected. If retrofitting is too costly or not practical, your senior may need to consider a new location that will provide them with universal design that allows them to live independently now and in the future.
  7. Manage finances — Senior loved ones have hopefully planned for their future and have funds available to meet their basic needs. Family caregivers may need to assist them with staying on a budget, getting access to all the benefits for which they are entitled, and putting practices into place that will reduce their susceptibility to financial scams so their money remains secure.

Celebrating our nation’s independence reminds us to celebrate the independence of our senior loved ones too — and help them plan to stay independent!

As George Burns put so well,

“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”