Before Mom got sick, she was an active lady. By active, I don’t mean she walked every morning. Rather, she was involved in almost every woman’s club in town, dedicated time to fundraising and countless local charities and took a deep level of interest in her family’s lives.
I vividly recall the first community I visited. As the admissions director walked me through the amenities during the tour, I drifted thinking about whether my mom would be bored there. I asked the admissions director what their most unique activity was. She responded: “armchair exercises.”
She proudly told me about the activity and suggested that I stay 30 minutes for the start of the next session. I was intrigued, so I stayed.
Slowly a few residents arrived, most of them with the help of a community caregiver and a wheelchair. Once seated in a semi-circle, the activities coordinator began walking the residents through a number of arm and leg motions.
The concept was solid. The problem: the activities director either didn’t notice or didn’t care that the residents weren’t participating. Many residents had a scowl on the face, evidence of the fact that they did not want to be there. Others went through the motions as best they could.
I remember thinking to myself when I left the community: armchair exercise is not an activity!
The point of my story is not to be sarcastic, but rather to illustrate something important. Activities represent an important part of your loved one’s day. They should be engaging both physically and mentally.
Being physically active can prevent and help treat many of the most common chronic medical conditions associated with old age. Physical activity is one of the most important steps older adults can take to maintain physical and mental health and quality of life. Yet today, more than 60% of older adults are inactive – and this number is probably much higher for residents of assisted living communities. Many are sedentary, physically unfit, and experience disability from chronic medical conditions as they age.
Community administration and staff members hear many reasons from residents as to why they are not active:
- It doesn’t feel good.
- It makes my arthritic joints hurt.
- It takes too much time.
However, they need physical activity more today than they care to admit. In fact, without physical exercise they will continue to suffer the loss of strength and stamina.
Walking groups and physical activity programs can help residents become and remain active.
Strength training is recommended for all adults, but it is a vital link to health for older adults. The reason is that strength training prevents sarcopenia, the muscle deterioration that comes with aging, and also helps maintain bone mass. “Stronger people have better health outcomes,” noted Dr. David Buchner, Chief of CDC’s Physical Activity and Health Branch and renowned Gerontologist. However, some elderly people avoid physical activity and become sedentary out of fear of falling and fracturing a bone. Dr. Buchner added that emerging data indicate that physical activity can prevent falls by improving strength, balance, and endurance.
Keeping Young at Heart aerobic activity, which is cardiorespiratory or cardiovascular endurance activity, is also important. It keeps the heart strong, lowers blood pressure, and relieves anxiety and depression. Even when the activities in a program such as this one are too strenuous, older adults can obtain significant health benefits with moderate physical activity, such as walking or gardening.
“We need to make physical activity part of the daily routine for older adults,” said Dr. Buchner. To that end, you should search for a community that has an active, diverse fitness program. Or, should the community you select have less-than-desirable physical activity programs, become instrumental in developing them.
What about Mental Fitness?
A large-scale study of women aged 65 and older found that cognitive decline was least common in those who were most physically active, while a large-scale study of men aged 71 and older found that those who walked less than a quarter of a mile a day were nearly twice as likely to develop dementia as those who walked more than two miles a day.
Basically then, aerobic exercise appears to improve higher cognitive functions (planning, organization and working memory) in the elderly. Another way physical training may help cognitive function in the elderly is by increasing their confidence in their abilities.
A small 14-day study found that those following a memory improvement plan that included memory training, a healthy diet, physical exercise, and stress reduction, showed a better performance on a cognitive measure controlled by this brain region, and participants reported that they felt their memory had improved.
The memory training involved doing brainteasers, crossword puzzles and memory exercises. Diet involved eating 5 small meals daily (to prevent fluctuations in blood glucose levels) that were rich in omega-3 fats, low-glycemic index carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains) and anti-oxidants. Physical exercise involved brisk walking and stretching, and stress reduction involved stretching and relaxation exercises.
Photo credit: brad montgomery