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Most Seniors Adapt Well to Reduced Mobility and Other Ailments, Survey Finds

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Despite of the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, a majority of older Americans find ways to manage life’s challenges and keep their independence, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. Unlike most previous studies of this kind, this one tried to take a more nuanced approach to issues of age-related disability and dependence of assistance.

Age-related disability is commonly defined as a reduced capability of performing everyday activities like maintaining basic hygiene, getting oneself dressed, moving around without help, or other routines like shopping and cooking.

According to the study, which looked at 38 million older adults enrolled in Medicare, including residents of nursing homes, about 12 million (31 percent) were fully able to manage on their own without any assistance; 9 million (25 percent) successfully learned to cope with limitations by using devices like electric wheelchairs, walkers, canes, hearing aides, and by making other adjustments to their homes; about 2 million (6 percent) were unaware of or failed to acknowledge their diminishing independence; 7 million (18 percent) found it hard to keep functioning without support but tried anyway; and nearly 8 million (20 percent) relied on caregivers, with about 1 million living in nursing homes.

Those who took precautionary measures like downscaling their households and simplifying their living environment were considered “successful adapters,” while others who either struggled to get through their day or depended at least part-time on outside help were found at the greatest risk of losing their independence.

Most seniors fear the loss of independence and having to move into a nursing home more than death, according to several studies on the subject. A vast majority (89 percent) hope to die in their own home, and more than half are concerned about not being able to do so. Most also don’t expect or desire to receive support from their children or other relatives. Only 1 percent reported wanting or actually receiving financial aid.

On the other hand, especially now retiring baby boomers are very keen on utilizing technological advances like computers and other devices and appliances in their homes to maintain an independent lifestyle.

But despite of such unprecedented opportunities, health concerns do weigh heavily on today’s seniors. Because of rising rates of chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and others, older Americans are actually less healthy than the generations that came before them. This may have potentially devastating consequences for how well they age, and so far the signs are not encouraging.

Other leading health concerns for the elderly include arthritis, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, and of course, cognitive decline like memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

The good new is that at least some of these trends could be turned around through better diet and lifestyle choices, and for implementing those, it is never too soon or too late. It would be surprising if Americans who have the most to lose could not find ways to protect what’s dearest to them.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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