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Senior Living: Tips for older adults to regain their game after being cooped up for more than a year

Alice Herb, 88, is used to walking miles around Manhattan.

But after this year of being shut inside, trying to avoid the coronavirus, she’s noticed a big difference in how she feels.

“Physically, I’m out of shape,” the New York resident said. “The other day I took the subway for the first time, and I was out of breath climbing two flights of stairs to the street. That’s just not me.”

Emotionally, Herb, a retired lawyer and journalist, is unusually hesitant about resuming activities even though she’s fully vaccinated, wondering about what potentially bad things could happen.

Millions of older Americans are similarly struggling with physical, emotional and cognitive challenges following a year of being cooped up inside, stopping usual activities and seeing few, if any, people.

If they don’t address issues that have arisen during the pandemic, these older adults face the prospect of poorer health and increased frailty, experts warn.

What should people do to address challenges of this kind? Several experts shared advice:

Reconnect with your physician

Large numbers of older adults have delayed medical care. Now that most seniors have been vaccinated, they should schedule visits with primary care physicians and for preventive care screenings, such as mammograms, dental cleanings, eye exams and hearing checks, said Dr. Robert MacArthur, chief medical officer of the Commonwealth Care Alliance in Massachusetts.

Have your functioning assessed

Primary care visits should include a basic assessment of how older patients are functioning physically, according to Dr. Jonathan Bean, an expert in geriatric rehabilitation and director of the New England Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.

Get a referral to therapy

If you’re having trouble moving around or doing things you used to do, get a referral to a physical or occupational therapist.

A physical therapist can work with you on strength, balance, range of motion and stamina. An occupational therapist can help you change the way you perform various tasks, evaluate your home for safety and identify needed improvements, such as installing a second railing on a staircase.

Start slow and build steadily

Be realistic about your current abilities.

“From my experience, older adults are eager to get out of the house and do what they did a year ago. And guess what: After being inactive for more than a year, they can’t,” said Dr. John Batsis, associate professor of geriatrics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“I’m a fan of start low, go slow,” Batsis added. “Be honest with yourself as to what you feel capable of doing and what you are afraid of doing. Identify your limitations. It’s probably going to take some time and adjustments along the way.”

Be physically active

Engaging regularly in physical activity of some kind — a walk in the park, chair exercises at home, video fitness programs — is the experts’ top recommendation.

The Go4Life program, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is a valuable resource for those getting started and you can find videos of some sample exercise routines on YouTube. The YMCA has put exercise classes online, as have many senior centers. For veterans, the VA has Gerofit, a virtual group exercise program that’s worth checking out.

Have realistic expectations

If you’re afraid of getting started, try a bit of activity and see how you feel. Then try a little bit more and see if that’s OK.

“Understand that this has been a time of psychological trauma for many people and it’s impacted the way we behave,” said Dr. Thomas Cudjoe, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. “We’re not going to go back to pre-pandemic activity and engagement like turning on a light switch. We need to respect what people’s limits are.”

Eat well

Make sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet that includes a good amount of protein. Adequate protein consumption is even more important for older adults during times of stress or when they’re sedentary and not getting much activity, noted a recent study on health aging during the coronavirus pandemic.

Re-establish routines

“Having a structure to the day that involves social interactions, whether virtual or in person, and various activities, including some time outside when the weather is good, is important to older adults,” said Dr. Lauren Beth Gerlach, a geriatric psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

Routines are especially true for older adults with cognitive impairment, who tend to do best when their days have a dependable structure and they know what to expect, she said.

End-of-day routines are also useful in addressing sleep problems, which have become more common during the pandemic: 19% of adults aged 50 to 80 report sleeping worse than they did before the pandemic, according to a University of Michigan poll administered in January.

Reconnect socially

Mental health problems have also worsened for a segment of older adults, according to the University of Michigan poll, with the same percentage reporting that they experienced more sadness or depression, while 28% reported being more anxious or worried.

Social isolation and loneliness may be contributing and it’s a good idea to start “shoring up social support” and seeing other people in person if seniors are vaccinated, Gerlach said.

Families have an important role to play in re-engaging loved ones with the world around them, Batsis suggested.

“You’ve had 15 months or so of only a few face-to-face interactions: Make it up now by visiting more often,” Batsis said. “Make the effort.”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Source: Orange County Register

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