Feet; we tend to not think about them – they are not particularly pretty, they are way opposite the body from the parts we tend to concern ourselves with, and they are largely just big hard knobs that we use to get from one chair to another, right? Of course not.
Feet are, like every other part of our highly-evolved bodies, crucial to our success as living creatures. It is not just about getting from here to there either; healthy feet are crucial for achieving our full height (reaching tall shelves), for maintaining balance (getting dressed, avoiding damaging falls), and what anatomists refer to as “weight transmission” (in other words, allowing us to stand up at all).
Special Problems with Elderly Feet
There are several problems that are common to all feet, and a few more that are common among the feet of our honored elders. Most people are familiar, at least in general, with athlete’s foot, corns, calluses, ingrown toenails, and heel spurs. But when you reach a respectable age, you should also be aware of:
- Fat Loss: As you age, the fat in your feet (which takes the form of ‘cushions’ of collagen and elastin filled with fat cells) departs, leaving your feet much less shock-absorbent.
- Arthritis: Contrary to intuition, there are over 30 joints in the foot. Arthritis most likely strikes the joint at the base of the big toe or the ‘midfoot’ joints at the top of the foot directly above the arch. Moreover, arthritis in the hip or knee can cause your foot to alter its alignment, which can cause pain on the inside or outside edge of the foot.
- Tendons Shrink, Ligaments Lengthen: Tendons (which connect muscle to bone) lose their water content as we age, which causes them to shrink. This can make it dangerous to engage in sudden activities, as the tendon can burst or tear. Ligaments (which connect bone to bone), contrarily stretch out as we age, which can cause joints that are supposed to be immobile (like the many in the arch of your foot) to become flexible, in this case causing your arch to collapse.
- Poor Circulation: It might sound like a minor inconvenience, and for some people, it is. Poor circulation can cause your feet to feel cold if nothing else goes wrong. But poor circulation also means that any injury your feet sustain takes dangerously longer to heal. Any blister, any cut from stepping on a sharp object, any bruise from dropping a heavy thing on your feet can turn into a potential source of infections or even cancer (yes, cancer can sometimes result from a long-term unhealed injury, particularly on the bottom of the foot).
- Skin Dries Out: Again, this sounds like a minor thing, and it is through about 60 years of age. But as you reach your early 60s, the skin on your feet (particularly on your heels) can dry to the point that it becomes brittle and cracks easily. Combine that with the poor circulation, and simple walking can become dangerous to your long-term health.
What Can our Honored Elders Do to Protect Their Feet?
First things first; find shoes that actually fit their feet. Take them to an expert if need be, but whatever it takes, get them in shoes that do not rub, squeeze, or pinch any part of the feet or toes. Always measure before you buy, as feet can become significantly wider as those ligaments stretch.
Second, improve circulation to the foot by getting a little exercise every day, and by avoiding tight shoes or socks. If exercise is impossible, devote a few minutes each morning and evening to a good old-fashioned foot rub; the boost to circulation is relatively short-lived, but done regularly, it can do a lot of good.
Third, the daily wash-and-dry. This can help ward off foot odor as well as athlete’s foot and other fungal problems.
Finally, if dry skin is threatening your feet with frequent cracks and sores, get a foot-specific moisturizing cream, and apply it 5-7 times a day (The biggest problem with these creams is people get the idea that it needs to be applied just once a day or even every other day, but actually, the benefits begin to fade in only a few hours).
Special Note: Diabetics
If your honored elder has diabetes (no matter what kind) their feet are especially vulnerable. Diabetes attacks both the blood vessels and nerves that serve the feet, meaning the aforementioned poor circulation problems are significantly worse, and it is easy to miss minor injuries due to nerve damage.
The result is that many elderly diabetics end up getting emergency toe or even foot amputations due to gangrene or other infections from minor injuries they never knew they had. Daily visual inspections of the feet are the most important tool for avoiding this situation, so make sure this happens, whatever it takes.