Mobility Issues and Seniors

Most members of America’s aging population would probably like to live independently if at all possible. However, for many elderly people, mobility issues can limit their lives. The U.S. Census Bureau notes that of the 15.7 million people age 65 and older who had a disability between 2008 and 2012, two-thirds reported difficulty in walking or climbing. In addition to limiting an elderly person’s activities, mobility problems can increase the risk of falls.

Mobility Issues

Seniors usually develop mobility problems because of muscle weakness, joint problems, chronic pain, diseases and neurological difficulties. Sometimes people have more than one reason for mobility problems. In many cases, people become less active as they age; this often occurs very slowly and the individual doesn’t realize how serious it has become. Decreased activity results in gradual loss of muscle strength. Mobility problems can take the form of difficulty getting out of a chair, climbing stairs or simply walking across the room.

Falls can cause a vicious cycle. Once an individual falls, he or she may become less active in the hopes that it will decrease the risk of another fall. A fall may also result in weakness or a guarded gait, which affects balance. On the other hand, when people are afraid of falling, they often become less active, which makes a fall more likely due to loss of muscle strength, balance and coordination problems. Falls can be dangerous in the elderly because of the risk of head injuries and broken bones.

Indoors vs. Outdoors

Some people do fine in the familiar surroundings of their own homes, but have difficulty on crowded streets or when they need to step up or down a curb or climb the steps to get on a bus. Uneven ground in the yard can pose problems for the elderly person whose balance is not ideal. Another issue related to mobility in the elderly is the ability to drive. An older person’s hearing and vision may be diminished, and slowed reaction times are also more common. Some seniors stop driving entirely, while others continue to drive but may be placing themselves and others at risk.

Improve the Environment

One of the first things to do when helping seniors with mobility problems is to ensure the safest possible environment. Throw rugs, for example, increase the risk of tripping and should be removed unless they have a heavy, solid, non-slip backing. Stairs should have good railings that are solidly fastened to the walls. Ramps may be safer than stairs in an outdoor environment. Mount safety rails in bathrooms, especially in the shower or tub. Make sure the home is well-lighted and remove items like footstools or decorative tables that may pose a risk.

Increase Activity

No matter how old someone is, exercise has many benefits. Many strengthening exercises, such as leg lifts, can be performed in a chair. It’s particularly important to focus on strengthening the large muscles in the thighs (the quadriceps muscles) as they are so important for weight-bearing. Hand weights next to the chair can encourage arm exercises. Even seniors who must use a cane or walker can benefit from a walk. Exercise classes geared specifically for seniors are often available and may even be free. Swimming is another good exercise for seniors who may have trouble with weight-bearing exercise and aquatic exercise offers resistance to help build strength. It’s important to wear shoes with good support for any exercise activity that involves walking or standing.

Other Strategies

For seniors who want or need to keep driving, regular eye exams are very important. The right glasses can make a big difference. Sometimes seniors become less active because they become isolated. Regular social or volunteer activities can be stimulating as well as keeping them more active. Volunteering also helps them feel useful and an important part of society. Getting enough sleep is also important, as people who are tired may not have the energy to be active. However sleeping pills can be dangerous to seniors and should be avoided in most cases. A cool, dark room, comfortable bed and limited or no caffeine may be all a senior needs to sleep well.Whether you are the senior or a senior’s child or caregiver, there are many things you can do to help with mobility problems. Professional help is also available, such as physical therapy to help strengthen muscles and promote balance or a home safety assessment to lessen fall risks. Don’t let mobility issues darken the days of the senior in your life.

Carlos Lopez is the director for Disabled Friends. He also handles the department of disability resources for MedicareFAQ, a learning resource center for all seniors and Medicare beneficiaries.