Keeping active is important as a person grows older. Engaging in regular exercise and physical activity can help to maintain independence and good health for longer, and it is not just physical activity that is needed. Cognitive exercise is also vital to keep the mind alert and help to reduce the risk of age related dementia or at least delay its onset.
Adults of 65 and over are the most sedentary age group and many of them spend a large proportion of every day sitting or lying down. This can mean that it becomes harder to keep enjoying everyday activities such as meeting friends, walking to the shops or playing with grandchildren. People who are inactive are at a higher risk of obesity, falls, heart disease and even early death than the more active parts of the population.
People who are inactive have less energy and suffer from more aches and pains than active people, but fortunately it is never too late to make some lifestyle changes, whether the person is living in their own home, with relatives or in an elderly care facility.
There are many different forms of physical activity, so there is something suitable for almost everyone. The ideal weekly amount of moderate activity to aim for is around 150 minutes, preferably spread out over the week. For example, half an hour of activity on five days a week is easily achievable for most people. This can consist of brisk walking, cycling or sports such as tennis or golf. In addition to aerobic activities like these, it is important to incorporate some kind of strength exercises such as carrying shopping or heavy lifting in the garden, as this keeps the muscles in good condition and enables the person to continue with everyday tasks more easily. Perhaps the most important consideration when deciding which kind of physical activity to take up is to choose something that the person will enjoy and is more likely to be able to continue for a long period.
People who are already active may prefer to undertake an additional 75 minutes of more vigorous activity each week. They will enjoy the same benefits as inactive people starting moderate activity. Activity levels can be built up gradually over time and will reduce the person’s risk of heart attack, stroke, falls and many other ailments.
If the person has not been active recently, a good place to start is with some easy exercises, such as those recommended by the NHS.
Making a habit of walking regularly can make a real difference to health and almost everyone can do it. The ideal to aim for is 10,000 steps a day, but any increase in activity is beneficial. If you would like to start walking, but do not want to walk alone, you could find an organised walk near you, by checking the Walking for Health website. If the person is able, having a dog to take for regular walks can be a real benefit and also acts as an incentive as even when it’s cold, wet and windy your dog will typically make you go out even if you don’t want to.
Swimming is also a very popular form of exercise with the elderly and it can decrease the risk of developing illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease. It also helps with controlling weight and can be a good way of socialising with others. Even older people who are unable to swim can join an adult only beginners group at their local pool and learn this important skill.
Activities such as tai chi, yoga and Pilates are all suitable for people of all ages. If you would like to find out more about any of these forms of exercise, the NHS website will provide an overview.
In addition to keeping the body active, it is important to maintain the cognitive functions of elderly people, and mental exercise can help with this. Not all older people experience a decline in their cognitive skills but many do. Using the brain can often help to stimulate it, with a positive effect on their ability to reason, think, remember, concentrate and make valid judgments.
Cognitive activities for the elderly include many tasks that they naturally undertake everyday as well as crafts, games and puzzles.
Puzzles and games are employed extensively in elderly care because they are so effective at engaging the brain and stimulating interest. Popular puzzles include crosswords, word searches, Sudoku and jigsaws. These can be used equally well at home with an older parent and are available in large print or with oversized pieces for people with physical limitations.
Games often enjoyed by elderly people include Scrabble, card games, bingo, dominoes and chess. Those who might find it difficult to manipulate small game pieces can frequently play these games on a tablet computer once they are familiarised with the new technology. It is important to choose age appropriate games and help to maintain the elderly person’s dignity.
Communicating with others through face to face conversation, telephone or via the internet can help to keep older people interested and engaged. Social interaction is increasingly important when people live a more isolated life, and their sense of self-worth can be enhanced, if they feel other people are interested in their opinions.
Some activities for the elderly can help them to maintain their fine motor skills and eye and hand coordination. Crafts such as drawing, painting, woodworking and photography can all help to keep the brain active and can be taken up later in life. When they get older, many people find they are able to enjoy crafts and hobbies that they did not have time to pursue when they were younger.
In elderly care establishments, people may have physical limitations that mean staff need to make modifications to the hobby or craft, so that the older person can benefit from taking part in it. For example, someone with arthritis might need adaptations to a paintbrush or a person with a reduced attention span may need a helper to prompt them to take the next step towards completing a task.
Dangers of Inactivity
Maintaining physical and mental activities for the elderly can help to keep them healthy for longer. In particular, reducing the amount of time they spend just sitting or lying down during the day can reduce the risk of obesity, some forms of cancer, type 2 Diabetes and premature death. Health guidelines published in 2011 recommend that everyone should reduce the amount of time they spend sitting and should take an active break from sitting every 30 minutes. Even just standing up and walking about for one or two minutes can make a significant difference and has been likened to revving up a car’s engine, as it engages the bones and muscles and gives all the bodily functions a boost.
These recommendations apply to all age groups but specific advice for older adults includes avoiding long periods of TV, carrying out light activities and being on their feet as much as possible. Doing some tasks such as writing a letter or having coffee should be done standing up and taking up active hobbies, using the stairs as much as possible and doing most types of housework are all recommended activities for the elderly.
Maintaining an Interest in Life
Older people, whether they are in elderly care or living at home, can become bored when they are retired. People who have lived busy lives may need help in finding an interest to keep them busy. Volunteering can often be helpful both for the older person and for others and many elderly people have specific skills or knowledge that can be passed on to other people.
Some people in elderly care settings do withdraw from social interaction and it is important not to pressure them into joining in with activities that are uncomfortable for them. So, while reminiscence sessions are usually very enjoyable and valuable activities for the elderly, they can cause distress for some who have upsetting memories of a certain period in their lives. Individual choice is the right of every older person and all we can do is to make suggestions for suitable activities and help and encourage the elderly person to take up their chosen activity.