American society has a significant prejudice against the elderly. Our Puritan roots bring with them some powerful stories that we re-tell every generation; only with time, those stories change slightly to fit the needs of each new generation.
What started out in Plymouth Rock as “Idle hands do the Devil’s work” has turned today into a modern narrative of ‘producers’ vs. ‘moochers’; i.e., if you are not contributing (by being employed, earning money, and spending it), you are a drain on society.
Unfortunately, seniors are generally not granted an exception from this narrative, and they know it. However, this should not be used as an excuse to treat them as though their health does not matter.
“But Peter,” someone might ask, “Isn’t that what nursing homes are for? To keep our loved ones healthy?”
This is supposed to be the purpose of nursing homes. But unfortunately, there is a fairly wide gap between intention and reality. Studies from the last five years have shown:
- Nursing home residents regularly spend 80% or more of their time inactive (lying down or sitting).
- 41% are unaware whether their nursing home offers exercise programs at all.
- 86% of those that are aware report having no ability to adapt an exercise program to their own needs or otherwise influence the activity the nursing home implements.
- 93% of nursing home residents are deficient or critically deficient in Vitamin D (which is mostly acquired through exposure to sunlight). Critical deficiency causes a massive 49% increase in mortality per annum over those who are not deficient.
- 97% of nursing home residents are malnourished or at significant risk of malnourishment, but only 19% of them are recognized by their caregivers as being at risk, and only 7% have been referred to a dietician.
While ‘clear’ statistics on dehydration are impossible to obtain simply because dehydration is a state that a person can shift into and out of several times each day, the expert estimates are that somewhere between 60% and 75% of the nursing home population is mildly to critically dehydrated.
How can we claim that our honored elders are being properly cared for when many of them are not eating, drinking, or moving enough to keep their bodies healthy?
Why is the Health and Well-Being of Elders Being Overlooked?
The reasons for this disturbing set of statistics are complex. One reason is the aforementioned prejudice against the elderly; it is easy to justify not spending time, money, and effort maintaining the body of someone who is perceived as not contributing to society.
Another is the simple disjunction between health and medicine. Doctors learn an extraordinary amount in their medical training, but what they typically do not learn (including health fundamentals such as nutrition and personal fitness) affects patients just as powerfully. Nurses often learn more about nutrition than doctors; but at a nursing home, they are often too busy to spend time talking nutrition with any one patient (the mandated ratio of nurses to patients is 1:30 in the US).
Finally, there is the fact that many elderly patients are simply disinterested in self-maintenance. For example, the same study that showed 41% of nursing home residents are unaware of exercise programs also showed another 38% knew about the programs and chose not to take advantage; even when the benefits (which include powerful motivational elements such as reversing dementia) were explained to them.
This comes back, however, to the first problem; it is all too common for our loved ones to consider themselves extraneous and a drain on their families and society. There is no particular reason to keep yourself healthy if all you are doing by adding years to your life is consuming more resources that could be going to someone ‘productive.’
It Is Never Too Late
Even someone in their 80s or 90s can benefit from improving their nutrition, hydration, and physical fitness, and those benefits affect their entire selves, not just their bodies. Not only can physical exercise fight dementia (as linked above), but daily consumption of vegetables, weekly consumption of fish, and taking Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia by 20% to 30% or more. On the other side, consumption of ’empty carbs,’ either complex or simple (e.g. rice, candy, bread, etc.) increases the chance of dementia.
Of course, it is not all about dementia; that is just a convenient, fairly well-studied, and generally powerfully motivating subject. The truth is that proper diet, hydration, and exercise can improve almost every aspect of the quality of life of seniors. If their nursing home is not on top of those aspects of their lives, you would do well to give the home a strong nudge in the right direction or consider other living accommodations.
Finally, if you really want to help your aging loved ones live out their golden years fruitfully, help them find a purpose; a story to tell themselves other than ‘I’m a burden.’