When we think about the health risks elderly individuals face, cancer, heart attacks, and strokes tend to be the first things that come to mind. In reality, though, while these are all real health problems – and the risk of any of the three increases with age – the most common health hazards facing seniors are environmental. Whether it’s a fall at home, a medication mistake in the hospital, or illness brought on by a summer heat wave, we all have the ability to help prevent circumstantial harms by educating ourselves about the risks that exist close at hand.
One piece of advice often given to older Americans is counterintuitive – don’t get up to go to the bathroom at night. Shouldn’t we encourage our elders to take care of their bodily needs? Of course, but within reason. Falls are especially common at night when seniors can’t see or are disoriented and the outcomes after a fall can set off a downward health spiral, even in healthy individuals.
Hip fractures, in particular, pose serious risks, and 300,000 older Americans are hospitalized each year after breaking a hip. Subsequent surgery can lead to infections and blood clots, and long stints in rehabilitation can further weaken and disable people after a hip break.
Besides not getting up at night, other ways to reduce the risk of falls among elders is by clearing out clutter in the home, removing rugs or placing non-slip mats under them, and making sure a light and any necessary mobility aids are within reach.
We rely on nursing homes and skilled care providers to keep our elders safe, but too often seniors are abused by nursing home staff – and it may never even be reported. That makes it hard to research appropriate care options for your senior family members.
To dispel any concerns, it helps to start looking for appropriate care options early, which will also help you assess conditions at the facility over time. And if you need to make income adjustments to qualify for Medicaid coverage to afford residential or in-home care from skilled nursing staff, researching your options early can help you choose the right financial path.
The Loneliness Factor
Most people find themselves with fewer friends around as they age, either because of illness or deaths or simply because of limited mobility and energy. But as it turns out, loneliness may be more dangerous than we thought. Seniors with stronger social connections have a lower risk of death as well as a higher quality of life than those who are more isolated.
Even if your elderly relatives don’t have many friends around, make sure that you keep them connected to the rest of the family and visit often. Moving healthier seniors into an assisted living facility can also help them build community during their later years while receiving appropriate support.
Medication mistakes are common in hospitals and impact people of all ages, but seniors are especially vulnerable to such errors, whether at home or in a facility. That’s because elderly individuals take more medications, making it easier to mix things up, may suffer from cognitive decline that causes them to miss medications or repeat dosages, or may face caregiver turnover, meaning they’re being administered medication by people who don’t know the routine.
Healthcare experts recommend creating a clear system to help seniors manage their medications, always filling prescriptions at the same pharmacy so that they can check for interactions, and asking care professionals questions about appropriate administration. It’s important to be proactive and make medication management a shared task.
As seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma – and as we witness every summer in cities across the nation – high heat poses a serious risk to seniors. That’s because elderly individuals are more likely to become dehydrated and are more sensitive to temperature changes, while also being less able to detect and compensate for environmental temperature.
If you’re in an area experiencing extreme heat, pay close attention to any elderly relatives and make sure they have access to plenty of fluids and an air conditioned environment. Seniors can die from heat stroke quite quickly if not provided with appropriate care.
Don’t underestimate the hazards in our everyday environments that can compromise elderly family members’ health and make sure they receive sufficient support either in home or in an appropriate facility. While there are many unavoidable health issues associated with aging, there are plenty of things we can do to keep our loved ones with us for as long as possible.