Aging Takes Courage: How Seniors Adapt to Aging

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Old Age ain’t no place for Sissies

Bette Davis

Aging takes courage. Aging well requires adaptation. And many seniors adapt to aging and find ways to cope with and manage common health challenges.

Everyday Realities of Aging: How Seniors Adapt

This article considers how seniors adapt to aging and the common age-related changes that affect everyday life. These changes occur at different rates for each individual.

There is no denying that these changes occur. But, they do not have to cause great decline in activity and in quality of life. Sometimes very simple adaptations can allow older adults to continue an activity that they love.

This article briefly discusses common changes in vision, hearing and gait/balance. More serious problems need medical assessment and treatment. 

The Canadian Association of Optometrists writes: 

Vision loss is a significant problem that affects an individual’s health, social environment and economic well-being. This is especially true for seniors for whom vision loss impedes healthy and independent aging. It doubles the difficulties of daily living; advances nursing home admissions by three years; doubles social dependence and the risks of falls, triples the risk of depression, quadruples the risk of hip fractures, and doubles the mortality rate.

Changes in Vision

The four most common eye diseases and leading causes of age-related vision loss in Canada are:
cataracts (opacity in the lens),
glaucoma (optic nerve damage due in part to elevated intraocular pressure), macular degeneration (changes to central vision),
and diabetic retinopathy (diabetes-related changes in the eye).

Since the majority of these eye problems are without symptoms,’ the best chance for early detection and treatment is through regular eye exams. If left untreated, these diseases can cause blindness or significant vision loss.

Several common, but less serious changes occur in vision.

  • The lens in the eye becomes yellow, which can cause difficulty in distinguishing blue from green colors.
  • The lens also loses some ability to change shape, which makes it harder to focus close up. This explains why so many people use reading glasses.
  •  The reaction time of the pupil slows down. It takes more time to adjust to changes between light and darkness.
  • Three times as much light is needed for reading or to do close work such as sewing.
  •  The perception of space may become distorted. This can affect safe driving.
  • Some individuals lose some of their peripheral vision. This change may lead to bumping into doorframes or other objects in the room. Obviously, it can also affect the ability to drive safely. 

The likelihood of developing some eye diseases increases with age. Most common are cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. 

Common eye diseases

cataract, or cloudy lens, occurs in about half of seniors over 75 years of age. Often both eyes are affected. Cataracts are related to aging processes, but they occur at varying rates and degrees in different individuals. Treatment involves removing the cloudy lens and implanting a clear plastic lens.

Glaucoma is a condition that causes increased pressure in the eye and can lead to blindness if not treated. While is it not a normal part of aging, it is the most common cause of blindness among seniors. Medicated eye drops are the most common treatment, although some individuals can be treated with laser surgery. 

Macular degeneration is a disease that is more common in later life. In this case, deterioration of the center (or macula) of the retina at the back of the eye occurs. As the disease progresses, the center of the field of vision is lost. Ongoing research is aimed at prevention and treatment of this serious disorder.

How seniors adapt to vision changes

Most individuals are willing to wear glasses to correct vision. Many use eye drops to correct glaucoma, and prevent blindness. Most seniors will accept cataract surgery and laser surgery when necessary. 

Here are common ways that seniors adapt to vision changes or loss.

  • nightlight. Some lights are plugged into the wall socket and shine a gentle light on the floor, showing a path from bed to the bathroom.
  • increased light for reading or close work.
  • magnifiers to read the phone book or to play cards

For information on ways to support an older adult with vision changes, download the pdf at the end of this article.

Changes in Hearing

Hearing is important to the quality of everyday living. We live in a noisy world, beginning in childhood with toys and personal music devices. 

For most seniors hearing loss is gradual. This slow change may mean that your parent is not aware of the change. Others in the family may notice it first. People with hearing loss often feel embarrassed by the inability to hear what is being said. This can lead to a sense of isolation, frustration, and depression. Hearing loss can also affect driving ability and safety. 

The incidence of hearing loss increases with advancing age. 

For information on common adaptations and ways to support an older adult with changes in hearing, download the pdf at the end of this article.

Changes in Gait/Balance

You can observe that many healthy elders walk slower and take shorter steps. They might increase  double support time (both feet on the ground).  This section does not address abnormal changes in gait. Gait disorders require medical assessment and treatment. 

How seniors adapt to changes in gait/balance

As people age, they slowly adapt their gait to adjust to changes in balance. They may take shorter steps and place their feet wider apart.  

Many accept aids such as a cane to ensure they can continue to walk independently and safely. Others engage in regular exercise to maintain muscle strength and flexibility. Some research suggests that Tai Chi can improve balance.

Further, some seniors attend classes with physiotherapists to learn specific exercises that improve balance.

The main focus in adapting to changes in gait/balance is to reduce hazards that might increase the risk of falling. Here are some things that you/your parents can do.

  • Locate an occupational therapist that will come into the home to identify risks in the environment.
  • Contact a home healthcare agency and ask about the best ways to assist your parent to get in and out of a car, or up and down the stairs.
  • Lower shelves and re-organize cupboards to avoid high reaching.
  • Release the tension on automatic door closers. Heavy doors are hard to open and to hold open.
  • Learn more about assistive devices, such as bathroom grab bars that contribute to safety. Visit the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Aging and Seniors website. Read “A guide for choosing and using assistive devices.

Take Action

  • Recognize that seniors adapt to aging — they have the courage to make changes in everyday activities that allow them to maintain independence
  • Talk to your parents about their everyday realities of aging. Ask them about the adaptations that they are making in their day-to-day lives.
  • Review the suggestions in this article (download below) and discuss with your parents. Perhaps you can add other adaptations that improve their quality of life.
  • Usually, people will accept eyeglasses more easily than they will hearing aids.  Find ways to suggest (gently) that your parent take a hearing test. 
  • Falls and resulting injury are a major risk for many seniors. Supporting your parent’s adaptations to changes in vision, hearing, and balance can help to reduce the risk.

For a copy of this article, including additional resources, download the pdf.

Everyday Realities of Life. How Seniors Adapt.
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