Aging can be fraught with unexpected changes and transitions. If you ask what quality of life means to several older adults, you may get a variety of answers. The answers can depend on where they live, the stress in their lives, or their medical condition.
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Ageist attitudes can also affect how older people are treated. They may often be ignored or treated like children. And even the language used can be demeaning and demoralizing for an older adult. Everyone deserves to have a good quality of life regardless of their age. After all, we will all be there eventually.
What Makes Up an Older Adult’s Quality of Life?
Generally speaking, there are several areas identified as having an influence on the quality of life of older adults. Priorities can change depending on the circumstances of one’s life and where they are, as is likely the case for you and your loved ones.
Independence and autonomy
Being independent and staying that way is something most of us take for granted. We go about our days commuting, working, managing family life, and taking care of our personal hygiene, finances, and healthcare. We make our own decisions.
For an older adult, independence and autonomy can start to slowly slip away. Chronic medical conditions, physical or mental decline, or an accident like a fall, can erode the foundation of independence. With the loss of independence comes an increasing dependence on others. Choices that used to be easy and effortless are now complicated, and it can feel like others want to make your decisions for you.
It can be a challenge to balance the need for autonomy with the desire to stay safe.
Physical function and chronic medical conditions
Physical function is the bedrock of independence and quality of life. Think about it this way: you or a family member could shower, cook, and drive independently until you have a fall and break a hip. Weeks of recovery means that you need help with all of the tasks that used to be second nature.
Independent physical function allows you to pursue what is important to you. For someone who sustains a permanent disability, they learn to cope and adjust. It can be a shock to lose the ability to access friends, activities, appointments, shopping, and trips.
Other physical functions that affect the quality of life are hearing, eyesight, and mobility. Loss of hearing has been connected to an increased risk of dementia, not to mention social isolation and loneliness.
Chronic medical conditions like heart failure, diabetes, or kidney failure require constant and close management. They have also been associated with an increased risk of pain, fatigue, and mood disorders.
Age is a risk factor for dementia. Memory loss, confusion, and the inability to make sound and safe decisions can be devastating for an older adult and their family.
Loss of cognitive function is frightening and can be dangerous. It is common for people with dementia to leave the stove on unattended, or wander out of the house. Driving and other transportation methods can become safety issues.
Humans are social creatures. Everyone has an individual tolerance and preference for other people, but in the end, we all need some form of social connection and support. People who are socially connected tend to have less depression and anxiety and are happier.
Loneliness and social isolation disproportionately affect older adults. This is due in part because they may be widowed, have limited mobility, and don’t drive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that loneliness is a risk factor for dementia, anxiety, depression, and exacerbation of existing medical conditions.
How Can Older Adults Improve Their Quality of Life?
Quality of life can be improved with a belief and commitment to the process. Taking greater control of your life may yield unexpected benefits.
Improve autonomy and independence
Unless someone is under legal guardianship, they have the right to make unsafe decisions. This is not to suggest that risky decisions are appropriate, but that sometimes it is worth the risk to have autonomy and quality of life.
Other suggestions for improving autonomy and independence:
- Consider taking an active role in your treatment and plan of care. Let your healthcare providers and caregivers know what is important to you. Asking questions about your medical care shows that you are an engaged participant.
- Think of ways where you can be more independent. You might try talking with your healthcare provider about ways you can do more. Even small tasks like helping with cooking dinner or taking on some household chores can give you a lift.
- Perhaps joining support groups is a way to feel empowered about your condition. Other people might have some great suggestions on how to build resilience thereby improving your independence.
- Communicating how you feel to those around you will keep your frustrations from building. Anger can make you feel worse and might be counterproductive.
- Discuss senior care options like assisted living before you need them. Having a flexible attitude and an open mind is important, but so is making your preferences known.
- Consider the idea of having a family meeting on topics such as budgeting for caregiver needs, advance directives, and managing household responsibilities.
Improve physical function
Regardless of what shape you are in, there is room for improvement which will enhance your quality of life in immeasurable ways. It is never too late to get started. Depending on your condition, start very slowly and consult with your physician before making any big changes. One way to think about physical function is to break it down into pieces.
- Strength. Muscle strength is what allows us to do pretty much everything. Without leg strength, you can’t walk far and without arm strength, you may struggle to get out of a chair. Physical therapy is a great way to get started improving your strength.
- Endurance. Endurance can be thought of in two different ways. One is muscle strength and the other is your heart and lungs. For your heart and lungs to stay healthy, they have to be used. Sitting in a chair does not tax your heart and lungs. Going for a walk does. A great guide to exercise for older adults can be found at Medline Plus. Always consult with your doctor before adding any exercise to your routine.
- Flexibility and balance. Falls are the leading cause of death and disability for Americans over the age of 65. There are many causes of falls including medications, poor eyesight, and a cluttered environment. As people age, they lose strength, flexibility, and balance. Working with a physical therapist and your physician to improve these areas can help to prevent falls.
- Nutrition and hydration. What you put in your body matters. Work with a nutritionist or your doctor to find the optimal diet for you. We now know the basics: adhere to a plant-based diet and avoid processed food. Staying hydrated will help not only your body but your brain as well.
Improve cognitive function
Cognitive function is a combination of the ability to remember, learn, problem-solve, pay attention, and make decisions. There is a misconception that older people lose cognitive function or that memory loss is inevitable. We now know that there are lots of ways to improve your brain.
- Learn new skills. This could be anything that strikes your fancy. Ideas include learning a new language, or hobby.
- Challenge your memory. Play a variety of games that test your concentration and memory.
- Engage with people. Conversation and social interaction help to keep the brain active.
Improve social connections
If you are isolated, there are ways to stay connected. The effort may take you out of your comfort zone, but once you have learned the world will open up.
- Learn to use a smartphone if you can. That way you can video call family and have ready access to social media accounts. If you wear hearing aids, smartphones have sophisticated programs to enhance your hearing depending on the environment you are in.
- Connect with multiple family members every day. Video conferencing programs like Zoom can allow you to do this.
- Having a laptop or tablet will connect you to the world. You can go on virtual museum tours or find unlimited information on any topic you are interested in.
Improve your attitude by setting goals
Setting goals is important because it will keep you accountable and allow you to track your progress. It may be too much to think about several areas of improvement, so just pick one and start there. No one runs a marathon their first time out. Everyone progresses one mile at a time.
Writing down your goals can be a great way to get started. Some people like setting their phone with reminders during the day to get moving or drink water. Do what works best for you.
Quality of Life as You Age
Despite what life may throw your way as you age, you can take charge and improve your quality of life. The good habits that you form now will build a reserve of resilience that can last a lifetime.
- “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html
- “Chronic Illness.” The Cleveland Clinic. my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4062-chronic-illness
- “Exercise for Older Adults.” Medline Plus. medlineplus.gov/exerciseforolderadults.html
- “Deaths from Falls.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. medlineplus.gov/exerciseforolderadults.html