During the dark winter months, many of us don’t feel like venturing out into the harsh weather, we feel more like staying indoors and keeping warm, its only natural.
However this problem is far worse for some older people, the winter can be a particularly challenging time. For them winter is a time of fear, isolation and loneliness and the problem affects huge numbers of people.
Here in Wales we are what is referred to as an ageing nation, and the population of Wales is ageing faster that the rest of the UK. We are living longer and the fastest growing age group is the over 65’s. In Wales there are over 565,000 people who are over the age of 65, that’s just under 20% of our entire population. Its predicted that by 2035, the figure could be up to about 30% of the population. On average a 65 year old today can expect to live for another 20 years.
Despite this apparent increase in longevity, many people over 65 in Wales often have health problems. As we age, many of us will suffer some form of physical deterioration. Wales has the highest rates of long term limiting illness in the UK, this accounts for a large proportion of unnecessary emergency admissions to hospital. In addition to this, around 800,000 people or 1 in every 4 people in Wales suffer from a chronic health condition such as diabetes, heart disease or coronary obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Of course you can’t just say after 65 people become vulnerable, but its fair to say that feelings of isolation, loneliness and fear are more common in over 65’s than people under 65. People often feel more vulnerable and less confident after an accident or a major upset in their life, things like a serious illness such as cancer or a bad accident. If someone loses confidence in their ability to do everyday tasks, the world can become a really scary place.
As we age our world shrinks and gets smaller and smaller. When you are a bit younger and fitter, and more to the point, physically able to do what you want, life is good. Your world is the actual world, you can travel anywhere your resources and legs will take you.
As you start getting older and your health may start to decline, barriers appear. Its just little things to start, like not going somewhere because there are too many steps for you to climb with your bad knee or its too slippery under foot and your afraid of falling, your not as confident as you once were. When this starts to happen, your world may reduce in size, your holiday destinations change, and the activities you did in the past may now seem out of the question.
Of course this can be the start of a major decline, its a vicious circle, the less you do the less you can do. After a period of time, you start to see other barriers appear, and decide for example that you can no longer go to the stadium to watch the sport like you used to and foreign holidays are out. Its best if you stay at home. The next thing you know, your world has now become your house and the garden, you feel safest there.
In time, and maybe after a few accidents or maybe because of poor physical health, you find the garden is a struggle, and pretty much you end up stuck in one room at home, sat in a chair, afraid to move or advised by your family “not to hurt yourself”. This scenario plays itself out in many homes and amongst many families right across Wales.
In addition to the very real human problems this produces, the implications of an ageing nation are far reaching, in particular it puts a big strain on our economy and our health and social care system. Many public services in this county are overburdened by the sheer demand. If it is Wales’ ambition as a country to “create world-class healthcare and social services in a healthy, dynamic country by 2015”, we will all need to play our part.
The good news is there are many people taking responsibility, bucking the trend and refusing to let age dictate what they can and can’t do. They are keeping their world BIG.
The shinning light at the end of the tunnel is often as simple as keeping active. There are many activities which will help to maintain your strength and balance, it can be as simple as walking short distances every day, like to the local shop and back. Dancing is also a great way to keep yourself sharp and well coordinated, as well as being a great social activity.
For many years the Welsh government and GP’s across Wales have been working closely with exercise specialists on the National Exercise Referral Scheme (NERS). The scheme runs throughout Wales and is operated in local leisure centres. It offers people the chance of 12 weeks specialist exercise support with the option to carry on for the long term once the initial learning is complete. The exercises on offer are all very gentle and schemes can cater for specific conditions like coronary obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Cardiac Rehabilitation and Falls Prevention. These schemes offer the citizens of Wales the chance to help themselves.
Worth a specific mention, falls prevention, is a wonderfully successful exercise intervention. Like I described in the situation earlier, people’s worlds often shrink, with them ending up stuck in a chair. Many people like that, who are stuck at home, quickly become very weak and frail, they often start to lose their balance and fall over, once this starts it can become a cycle of – falling, being taken into hospital, getting fixed up and given rehab, then sent back home, only for them to fall again and repeat the whole process, they are called “fallers”. After 6 weeks of gentle exercise these recurrent fallers can reduce their chance of falling over again by over 80%.
Five Tips To Stay Fit For Life
1. Stay active, keep yourself moving and remember, “If you don’t use it you lose it”.
2. Doing something small every day like a short walk is a good idea.
2. Activities such as Tai Chi and dancing give the easiest and best overall boost.
3. Take personal responsibility for your activity, its down to you at the end of the day.
4. Get professional help if you are currently inactive or unsure, speak to a GP or exercise specialist.
5. Join a group. Exercising with others is more fun than on your own as you get the social interaction as well as the benefits of the activity.
Keeping older people healthier for longer, will hopefully allow more people to live independently at home and not be taken into hospitals or care homes.
The ultimate aim for us all should be to keep ourselves IN better health and OUT of hospital.