Common Health Issues Facing Seniors

November 2, 2016

Those of us with elderly parents want very much for them to be able to stay as healthy, productive, and independent as possible for as long as possible. Unfortunately, whether through genetic or lifestyle factors, seniors are very much prone to certain health issues that can pose real challenges. And with roughly 28% of seniors living alone and over 40% reporting they feel lonely on a regular basis, it’s often true that they can lack support and guidance that perhaps would help prevent certain conditions or ensure they’re treated properly. If your mom or dad lives alone, or without a lot of support systems in place, you may be concerned they’re not taking the best care of themselves they could. We thought it would be helpful this week to take a look at the most common health issues seniors are likely to face, with an eye to steps you can take towards seeking proper prevention and treatment for your elderly parent.

Generally speaking, senior health problems tend to coalesce around three areas:

Physical Injury: Among seniors, falls are the leading cause of injuries, trauma-related hospital admissions, and injury-related deaths. A senior is treated in an Emergency Room every 15 seconds in this country. And the post-operative consequences can be physically and financially costly as well; as an example, a quarter of all hip fracture patients require nursing home coverage for at least a year. What can you do to try and prevent this from happening to your elderly parent?

  • Take steps to making Mom’s home environment safer, removing potential fall hazards like wires, clutter, and slippery floor rugs, as well as making sure rooms and hallways are lit properly. Teach her some simple balance exercises she can do with you and on her own, or look into balance and coordination classes through your local Council on Aging chapter.

Chronic Illness: It’s estimated that over 90% of older adults suffer from some form of chronic disease – the most common being cancer, heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. More than half of older adults have more than one chronic condition, and almost 15% are diabetic. While genetic and environmental factors make prevention difficult for some, there are meaningful steps worth taking towards prevention or proper treatment:

  • First, make sure Dad is being followed by an excellent primary care practice that’s easy for him to get to regularly. Second, there’s significant evidence that lifestyle interventions around diet and exercise play a critical role in staving off chronic illness – in the case of diabetes, they can reduce risk by up to 71% among those 60 and older. If Dad’s cooking for himself, for example, or you have nutritional concerns and aren’t able to provide hands-on help, look into group meal options at his place of worship, senior center, or community center. Perhaps arrange a healthy meal out for him once a week, with a neighbor or caregiver. Meal delivery services are also an option. In terms of exercise, the Eldergym website is a wonderful resource for practical and safe ways to help elderly people of varying mobility and ability get active and moving. You also could look into signing Dad up for mobility classes at his local library or senior center.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse: Here’s an area where the loneliness and isolation we spoke of earlier can really come into play, and the statistics are sobering. One in four older Americans suffers from some type of mental illness, with an estimated seven million dealing with depression alone. In terms of substance abuse (which can be linked to mental health issues), more than one third of Americans over 60 drink alcohol to excess, while the number of seniors abusing prescription drugs is estimated to rise to almost 3 million by the year 2020. What can you do to make sure your parent is not at risk?

  • If Mom is living alone, take steps to limit potential feelings of isolation. Make sure she has proper access to transportation, whether through a senior center or ride sharing service; arrange for meals with friends or neighbors; perhaps consider a low-maintenance pet for her, like a cat or trained companion dog.
  • Be on the lookout for signs of substance issues, including Dad seeming impaired, or sedated; requesting early refills on prescriptions; doctor shopping; having mood swings or personality changes, or exhibiting poor hygiene.
  • If Mom is taking prescription medications, make sure that either you or a caregiver are supervising her self-administration, and that she’s closely followed by her physician throughout.

For more helpful strategies on coping with senior health challenges, head to the Mayo Clinic website.