The good news? People today are living longer than ever. The bad news? Longer life comes at a cost. Specifically, older people are more likely to develop geriatric syndromes, defined as “common clinical conditions that don't fit into specific disease categories but have substantial implications for functionality and life satisfaction in older adults.”
Luckily, there are many ways to help promote both independence and quality of life while caring for someone with a geriatric syndrome. Here’s a closer look at seven of the most common geriatric syndromes as identified HealthinAging.org, along with tips for managing them.
1. Bladder control problems.
More than half of older adults suffer from incontinence, according to the CDC. But while incontinence increases with age, experts are quick to point out that incontinence should not be considered an inevitable part of the aging process. Several treatments are available, including exercises, medication, special devices, and medical procedures and/or surgery.
The takeaway for caregivers? It's very likely that an intervention exists which could help your aging loved one manage their incontinence. A conversation with his/her healthcare provider is a smart place to start.
2. Sleep problems.
Roughly half of seniors report that they have difficulty sleeping. While this may seem like a fairly straightforward issue, scientists have linked poor sleep with an increased risk of mortality.
Says research published in the journal Gerontology, “The decrements seen in the sleep of the older adult are often due to a decrease in the ability to get the needed sleep. However, the decreased ability is less a function of age and more a function of other factors that accompany aging, such as medical and psychiatric illness, increased medication use, advances in the endogenous circadian clock, and a higher prevalence of specific sleep disorders.”
Caregivers who notice symptoms of sleepiness or sleeplessness should talk to their aging loved ones’ doctors to identify the causes and begin treating them.
According to research published in JAMA, “Delirium is a common and serious complication in elderly patients. Evidence suggests that delirium is associated with long-term poor outcome but delirium often occurs in individuals with more severe underlying disease.”
This phenomenon, which is considered a medical emergency, often occurs during hospitalizations. Caregivers can help reduce the risk of delirium by helping to orient the patient while in the hospital, bringing along items that help seniors see, hear and eat better; being present whenever possible, and notifying healthcare providers as soon as symptoms of confusion begin to arise.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but there are many types of this memory-afflicting condition. And while there’s no cure for most types of dementia, a number of treatments can help address symptoms and behavior problems, including medication, occupational therapy, modifying the environment, and modifying tasks.
While many people fear that a dementia diagnosis means the end of life as they know it, there are profound benefits to early diagnosis of the condition, including access to treatments that can slow down the progression of the disease, access to advice and support, and time to prepare for the future. If you notice that your aging loved one is experiencing memory problems that impact her daily life, talking to her healthcare provider can immeasurably improve outcomes. Furthermore, it can also rule out other underlying health conditions which may be causing the symptoms.
As a caregiver, you’re likely already aware that falls are a leading cause of injury and death in seniors. But you may not be aware of the degree to which many falls are preventable through the mitigation of risk factors, including safety hazards in the living space, medication side effects, vision loss, mobility problems, dizziness, arthritis, malnutrition, and weakness.
If you are caring for someone who has fallen, or you are afraid he is in danger of falling, talk to his healthcare provider. In addition to identifying the causes of falls, your aging loved one’s doctor can also suggest fall prevention treatments, such as physical therapy and exercise.
“Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. As a result, bones become weak and may break from a fall or, in serious cases, from sneezing or minor bumps,” says the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF).
Caregivers can help safeguard the bone health of seniors through increased calcium and vitamin D intake, weight-bearing exercises, and strength training exercises. Additionally, medication may also be prescribed in some cases. Worried that your aging loved one may have thinning bones? Ask her doctor about a bone density test.
7. Weight loss
While most people spend the majority of their lives trying to shed excess pounds, unwanted weight loss is a common—and potentially dangerous—condition in older adults as it can lead to other problems, including everything from weakness to bone disorder.
At each physical, your aging loved one should be weighed to check for changes. Additionally, if you notice that your loved one is losing weight, talk to his healthcare provider. Caregivers can help prevent weight loss in seniors through a number of different techniques, including making food more appetizing, incorporating more physical activity to boost the appetite, and checking to make sure medications aren’t causing nausea, dry mouth, or swallowing difficulties. Also, remember that mealtimes are inherently social. Even the mere act of joining a senior for a meal may make the meal more enjoyable—and appetizing.
What do all of these geriatric syndromes have in common? While they are challenging, they’re not insurmountable—particularly when caregivers enlist the partnership of their aging loved ones’ healthcare teams.
mmLearn.org offers a large library of free videos for caregivers of older adults, covering topics pertaining to senior care. Whether you are a healthcare professional or a family caregiver, if you are caring for an older adult we know that you will find mmLearn.org an essential learning and guidance tool for all of your caregiver training needs. Access our database of free online caregiver videos today for additional caregiver support resources.