Thanks to advances in medicine and lifestyle, more and more of us are living to a healthy old age. While unambiguously being a good thing, this does throw up a number of challenges. Old age brings with it a decline in physical (and often mental) capability, and this often leads in turn to dependence on relatives and professional carers. For many older people, this decline is demoralising, and causes a drop in self-esteem.
We should, of course, take every opportunity to look after older people. But we should also take every opportunity to help them look after themselves. Fortunately, the modern world offers plenty of ways to do just that.
Here, we’ll look at five methods of ensuring quality of life and independence for older people, starting with one of the more cutting-edge ones.
Among the most significant trends in the modern home is toward voice-recognition software. For able-bodied people, being able to switch the lights on and off with a voice command is a convenience; for the elderly, it might make a huge difference to their quality of life.
Of course, not every old person is going to feel comfortable placing an always-on microphone in their living room. And, since the technology is still in its infancy, there’s still a chance of Alexa or Siri mishearing what their human master is saying, which can be especially frustrating if there’s no-one on hand to iron out the misunderstanding. As such, for the foreseeable future voice assistants should be viewed as a supplement for real human support, not a replacement for it.
With all of that said, voice assistants can provide a means of accessing the internet, even for older people who struggle with smartphone touchscreens, keyboards and mice. After all, there’s nothing more intuitive than speaking commands aloud in plain English – that’s part of why the proportion of Google searches phrased as questions has been rising for years. So, rather than having an old CD player gathering dust in the lounge, a single speaker device can be made to deliver music, news and weather reports. The results are empowering and life-improving.
The companies who manufacture and sell virtual assistants are, naturally, keen to emphasise their benefits. Among the more exciting prospects where the elderly are concerned is that voice assistant technology might play a role in detecting the early signs of Parkinson’s and other diseases which subtly evidence themselves via speech patterns.
Studies of Alexa in retirement communities have yielded promising results. After being piloted in a small group of homes in San Diego, the technology enjoyed widespread praise, with 100% of a group of fifteen claiming that the devices made their lives easier.
With age, almost inevitably, comes physical infirmity. For some, this might arrive suddenly and, relatively speaking, quite early on. Others might keep up a regular exercise routine well into their eighties and beyond. But sooner or later, tackling simple obstacles like a set of stairs might prove difficult – or even impossible. The result can be an enormous loss of self-regard, particularly if the decline arrives suddenly, and the older person is forced to sleep downstairs, or, worse yet, be carried up to bed.
One solution is to move into a bungalow – after all, with no stairs to climb, the problem takes care of itself. This is a step that many older people take proactively, after feeling a pain in their knees that worsens every winter. But for many, this isn’t an option. For one thing, the process of selling a house and moving to another is stressful and time-consuming, particularly if it coincides with physical ill-health. On top of that, we should consider the sentimental value of an existing home, which, if the older person in question has been resident for years, can be significant. Moving out of a much-loved home can feel like being evicted by ill-health.
Happily, technology offers another solution in the form of a stairlift. These devices aren’t a recent invention, but their power to carry an older person up and down a set of stairs hasn’t been matched.
Before you get a stairlift installed, it’s worth getting some background information on the installer. They should have years of experience behind them, and a string of satisfied customers. You’ll also want to be sure that you’re getting continued support throughout the life of the product.
The cost of a stairlift will vary according to a range of factors, including the length and curvature of the stairs in question, but a 2018 survey by Which put the average price for a new stairlift at around £3,369.
Installation starts with a visit by an assessor, who will consider not only the staircase in question, but the older person who’ll need to get up and down it. When collating quotes, be sure that the fees are all-inclusive, so that you can compare like-for-like. In some cases, it might be necessary to modify furniture at the bottom of the staircase, like cabinets and radiators, so factor those into the cost of your stairlift.
Another popular form of home-modification comes in the form of handrails. These are simple and inexpensive for a competent DIYer to install. They should be placed at key points around the home, according to the needs of the person using it. They are an obvious addition to bathrooms, wet-rooms, and other parts of the home where there’s a danger of slippage.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, falls and slips are the most common cause of accidental death in older people, with 282,000 over-65s being admitted to hospital in 2014/15. Falls aren’t equally likely everywhere in the home, nor are they equally damaging. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 60% of fatal falls in the home occur on the stairs. Moreover, injuries resulting from falls on the stairs can be severely debilitating. By installing a second banister on the other side of the staircase, we can reduce the likelihood of this happening.
As well as preventing falls, a few strategically-placed handrails can make it that little bit easier for a person to get from one area of the house to another, which alleviates the feeling of being trapped in a sofa when you’d really like to be able to go and make a cup of tea (or even go to the toilet). These tiny decisions are, in isolation, so trivial that they’re rarely complained about – but making things that little bit easier can have a considerable positive impact on the wellbeing of an older person.
Among all the forms of exercise, walking is among the best. It’s low impact and low intensity enough for even the elderly to engage in, and it can be easily slotted, in short bursts, throughout the average day. But joint problems tend to manifest later on in life. Almost nine million of us in the UK suffer from some form of osteoarthritis, most of whom are older people. A little extra support is sometimes necessary.
In an ideal world, there would be handrails sprouting from every building and footpath in the country. Since this isn’t the case, many older people make do with the next-best thing: carrying a walking stick.
Walking sticks have been around, of course, for thousands of years. They come in a range of heights and styles, and can be adjusted to suit the needs of the person using it. But a walking stick shouldn’t just be viewed as something to invest in once the symptoms of knee trouble begin to manifest. For older people who are still active and going on hikes and hill-walks at the weekend, a set of walking poles will ensure that they retain their mobility for as long as possible. Poles are advantageous for walkers in their fifties, forties, thirties or even twenties; they will effectively distribute the impact of every step between the shoulders, the knees and the hips, and improve posture. This means longer walks are possible, recovery is faster, and that an active lifestyle can be maintained for longer before joint pain begins to manifest.
The kitchen is among the most important rooms in the house. Where older people are unable to make full use of the kitchen, they can end up feeling as though they’re losing something of themselves. After all, being unable to prepare meals for yourself is among the more galling sorts of dependence.
Unfortunately, the modern kitchen isn’t always designed with older people in mind. But there are a few steps we can take to make things easier – and most of them don’t involve ripping the entire room out and starting from scratch.
For many older people, reaching over head height is a challenge, and coming back down with a stack of plates or a heavy pan is nigh-on impossible. In a modern kitchen, we tend to take advantage of vertical space by packing in extra storage in the form of over-counter cupboards. But, if the person using the kitchen can’t easily make use of this space, this might not be such a stellar idea.
In fact, cupboards in general are a source of unnecessary difficulty; drawers, which offer easy access to the entire space, are almost always preferable.
Another thing we might look at are sharp corners. Kitchen designers are increasingly resorting to rounded cabinets, on the grounds that they look better and allow for better flow of traffic around congested crossing-points like doorways. This is obvious advantageous where old people are concerned, as round edges mean a reduced likelihood of catching an elbow, or an injury in the event of a slip.
Excessively deep sinks are another source of irritation as we get older.
It’s possible to fit more items into a deeper sink, sure – but if you’re just washing a little bit, then you might need to lean in slightly to reach the bottom, which can be uncomfortable. Installing a shallower sink might therefore be worthwhile in the long run. Alternatively, you might install a shallow, raised bowl which can sit within the existing sink.
Most kitchen injuries come from two sources. There’s the mishandling of a knife, and there’s a burn injury on a hot stove. Replacing cast-iron pans with lightweight aluminium ones will not only allow an older person to more easily wield the pan in question; it’ll also allow them to avoid accidentally grasping a handle that’s blazing hot.
Another difficulty comes from chopping injuries. Having to dice an onion can be a tremendous chore for sufferers of neuromuscular conditions like Parkinson’s. Opting for the ready-chopped, frozen stuff can make life considerably easier.
Finally, we should consider the choice of flooring in the kitchen. Some materials are naturally more slip-resistant than others, and as we get more uncertain on our feet, the danger of a fall gets more pressing. We can counteract this with handrails, as we’ve mentioned, but we can also be sensible in our choice of tiling.
Porcelain tiles tend to offer superior grip to other sorts of ceramic, as they absorb less moisture. Marble and other forms of solid stone, on the other hand, tend to become extremely slippery when wet.
Vinyl flooring has a little bit of give, and will offer fantastic slip resistance – and it’s affordable, too. With that said, some older people might balk at the idea of tearing up expensive granite to replace it with plastic. A compromise is to be found in the form of non-slip mats, which can be inserted in areas where slippage is a concern.
Here, we’ve covered just a few of the steps that can make an older person’s life that little bit easier, and allow them to retain their independence for longer. There are two conclusions worth emphasising. The first is that everyone’s a little bit different, and thus taking a one-size-fits-all approach, where we simply modify the older person’s lifestyle without regard for their individual needs and wants, is often ineffective. At its worse, it can be patronising; some older people might take umbrage at the suggestion that they can’t chop an onion properly, even if the intervention is well-intentioned.
The second conclusion is that it’s better to intervene early in a preventative way than wait until things deteriorate. This is especially true where mobility is concerned. Picking up a walking stick sooner rather than later will, for example, will allow the old person to stay active for longer, and retain all of the considerable health benefits of doing so.
Laura McLoughlin works as a Digital PR and is based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her previous roles include website editor and journalist. She currently works with Olympic Lifts.