Focus on a senior's abilities, not disabilities

Tips for fostering care recipients’ independence

By Lisa M. Petsche
Independence contributes to self-esteem and quality of life, and frail seniors are challenged with hanging on to as much independence as possible for as long as possible.

Participating to their full capability in personal care and other activities of daily living helps them maintain physical and cognitive functioning and ward off depression.

Unfortunately, well-meaning relatives who diligently assist in their care may focus primarily on disabilities rather than remaining abilities. The result? Doing more for care recipients than is necessary or desirable.

If you are a family caregiver, the following are some ways to help empower your relative in day-to-day life.

Nutrition

  • If his nutritional intake is poor, arrange a dental appointment to have his teeth or dentures checked.
  • If his manual dexterity is limited, look into adaptive equipment such as compartmentalized dishes and easy-grip utensils, available from medical supply stores.
  • If drinking from a mug or glass is challenging, supply a straw, two-handled cup, travel mug, or break-resistant cup with a lid.

Personal care

  • Purchase clothing that is easy to put on and remove. Select colors and styles that can be mixed and matched.
  • Look into adaptive equipment such as long-handled shoehorns and sock aids.
  • Have grab bars installed by the toilet and in the bathtub or shower area. Obtain a raised toilet seat if necessary.
  • Get a bath bench or shower chair and a hand-held showerhead.
  • Use a non-slip mat in the tub or shower and a non-skid bathmat on the floor.
  • Consider a urinal or commode for nighttime, especially if the bathroom is not nearby.

Mobility

  • If getting up from a chair is difficult, obtain one with arms and a high, firm seat. Another option is an armchair with a built-in lift.
  • If getting out of bed is difficult, explore equipment options such as a floor-to-ceiling pole beside the bed, trapeze bar, partial bed rail, or electric bed.
  • Look into a cane or walker if balance is a problem.

Other

  • Keep in mind that there are different degrees of help – setup, verbal prompting, demonstration, hands-on assistance – and offer only as much as needed.
  • Give options whenever possible, for example, in choosing what to wear.
  • Encourage him to participate in his care as much as possible – combing his hair, dressing his upper body, or handing you the washcloth, for instance. Be creative, flexible, gentle, and patient.
  • Try to find tasks he can complete independently, for example, sorting the mail, tending houseplants, folding laundry.
  • Involve him in decision-making to the best of his ability, and keep him informed about relevant issues such as his finances, for instance, if you are helping to manage them.
  • If vision is a problem, get him a magnifier for reading small print, and consider other adaptive items such as large-keypad telephones with speed dialing and clocks with oversized numbers.
  • Schedule regular medical checkups for your relative. Bring a list of his medications, and ask the doctor to review them. Request a hearing or vision evaluation if he’s experiencing problems with either sense.
  • Encourage activity and exercise to help maintain strength, stamina, flexibility and balance.
  • Schedule the most important and most energy-consuming activities early in the day. Allow adequate rest periods between activities.
  • Arrange an occupational therapy evaluation to determine what activities of daily living your relative is capable of, the best way to perform them, and adaptive equipment that might be helpful.
  • If a health setback has led to deconditioning, explore rehabilitation options that might help him regain functioning.

Social and emotional well-being

  • Encourage your relative to maintain important relationships through visits, phone calls, or correspondence.
  • Facilitate his involvement in activities that provide purpose or pleasure, for example, continuing hobbies or developing new ones, or volunteering (which can even be done from home).
  • Encourage him to get out to an adult day program, senior center activities, church functions, or other programs or events in the community. Arrange accessible transportation if necessary.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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