How to encourage seniors or ill relatives to perform self-care: tips for caregivers

The term 'self-care' refers to treatment performed by a patient to ameliorate a perceived symptom. Such treatment is most effective when applied to less serious symptoms1. More pressing issues tend to be less amenable to self-care, and are most often presented to and addressed by professionals.

However, this is not to say that self-care cannot be a valuable tool for people with both moderate and severe health needs. Some of the greatest benefits of self-care entail routines which are often overlooked as therapeutically valuable, such as getting good sleep, eating well, and taking regular exercise. These basic principles of self-care are not merely window dressing to “real” treatments, but rather form the essential basis for healing.

Exercise activities as self-care

Exercise is essential to keep older adults healthy and well-adjusted. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend engaging in moderate-intensity aerobic activity as well as muscle-strengthening activity, reducing sedentary behavior, and practicing risk management2. Aerobic exercises (like taking a walk) should be undertaken at least 20 minutes per day, between three and five days per week, while muscle-strengthening (via, for example, weight training) should occur two or three times a week for significant benefit.

However, knowing these guidelines is one thing, and getting someone to cooperate with them is another. Just like anyone else, many older folks demonstrate reluctance to commit to regular exercise, or simply maintain a low motivation to follow through after getting started.

It is a good idea to talk to the client or family member about why they do not want to exercise, as the answer may be related to shyness, uncertainty, or anxiety. For example, an elderly person may not want to perform balance exercises because they are (perhaps justifiably) worried they will fall and hurt themselves. In such cases, you could explain to them that performing these exercises will, in fact, make them less likely to fall. Offer to be with them while they exercise so that you can catch them if they start to lose their balance.

Another good way to help an older adult to meet their exercise requirement, while also providing them with the opportunity to socialize, is to have them join a class or exercise group. Many gyms, sports centers, and community centers offer classes specifically designed with the health needs of seniors in mind, and clients may feel less self-conscious when surrounded by other people of their age and ability. Accompanying your client to such a class gives them psychological support, while also allowing them space and freedom to interact socially with their peers.

Adapting the environment to enable agency

Making adjustments and modifications to the home environment can foster greatly improved senior mobility, while mitigating risk of injury. Some typical examples include building extra handrails, installing specially equipped telephones, and modifying bathrooms for wheelchair use.3

Such modifications allow older adults to feel in control of their environment, and thus more confident when moving around the home. Mobility-assisting devices, such as canes or walkers, can further promote a sense of physical agency. Self-reliance is perhaps the most crucial element in allowing seniors to feel respected and dignified.

Of course, home modifications can be prohibitively expensive for some families. In this case, there are still actions that you can take together with the older adult to promote their independence. For example, stairs can pose a challenging obstacle to someone with decreased physical facilities, so moving a senior’s bedroom to the ground floor can provide a meaningful boost to their quality of life. Additionally, set up and stock the kitchen in such a way that seniors can easily cook meals for themselves or prepare drinks like tea or coffee.

Self-management of medical conditions

Another form of self-care to be aware of is the self-management of medical conditions. Especially in chronic illnesses, older adults must adapt their lives not only to meet their physical and mental health needs, but also to manage their condition. For example, they may need to take a variety of medications daily, or attend regular check-ups with their doctor.

This is a particular challenge because it requires a great deal of work; the person must be knowledgeable about their condition as well as the treatments that they are using, they must adhere to any schedule of activities required to manage the condition, and finally, they must find a way to deal with the psychological feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression which often accompany medical issues4.

The degree to which a particular client can self-manage their condition varies greatly between these requirements. For example, a patient with dementia who is exhibiting memory difficulties will not be able to manage their medications without assistance. On the other hand, someone suffering from diabetes may have no problems taking charge of their medication schedule, and doing so can help them to feel knowledgeable about their condition and empowered in treating it.

Clients are often not well informed about their medical issues, so getting medical practitioners to explain their condition and the treatments being used can enable the client to take agency over their own care. Similarly, caregivers can support this by doing their own research, and sharing their understanding with the client.

Self-care for caregivers

Self-care is important not only for patients, but also for their caregivers. Those who care for older adults with dementia and other chronic conditions are especially vulnerable to depression and anxiety, so self-care forms an important psychological protection for these carers5. For more information about mental health and caring, see our recent blog post.







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