May is Older Americans Month: Independent tasks can help maintain current level of function

by Jessica Wilkins,
Physical Therapist Assistant
Team Lead for RehabVisions in the Waukon and Lansing communities

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” - Benjamin Franklin

No statement can hold truer as a person ages. As a person grows older, joints get stiffer and muscles tighter. These changes with aging can initiate a vicious cycle that can create a decline in functional ability because it can cause one to be less active.
With the decrease of functional movement, the daily activity that was previously completed without hesitation can become increasingly difficult and be completed less and less. A perfect example would be a person who notices that their balance isn’t quite as good as in previous years. Due to fear of falling, this person walks less and limits their activity or may change their gait pattern (the way one walks) to short shuffled steps with an increased base of support.

These changes that people make without consideration can actually increase their risk of falls and decrease their mobility. Walking naturally stretches muscles in legs and if a person becomes less mobile this natural stretching process doesn’t occur. The person with a short shuffled gait isn’t stretching their legs due to the changes that occur in the lower extremity range of motion that is used to obtain this type of movement as well as decreased clearance of ground. This type of movement actually increases the risk of trips and falls occurring.

One large component of therapy is prevention. Physical and occupational therapy often receive orders to set up aging individuals on a Home Exercise Program (HEP). A therapist can evaluate the deficits present in each individual and will set up a stretching and strengthening program designed around those noted deficits. The therapist typically sees the patient for several visits providing education, instruction and progression of HEP. This time gives patients the ability to be confident that they are properly completing the established program and the therapist the ability to progress the patient in HEP, if able.

Physical therapy can establish a HEP to work on stretching lower extremities, strengthening, balance, increased ease of transferring from low surfaces, and improved gait with decreased fear of falling. Occupational therapy can work to improve upper extremity range of motion and strengthening, and increased ease with dressing, cooking, bathing and energy conservation tasks.

To obtain an order for physical and occupational therapy, a visit to the doctor is necessary. Most insurances cover therapy services and a person’s therapist or insurance company can assist with more details in coverage.

There are a few things that a person can participate in independently to work on maintaining their current level of function:
• Iowa Public Television (IPTV) airs a “Sit and Be Fit” class Sundays at 6 a.m. CST.
• Fine motor coordination tasks could include:
  - Playing cards/shuffling a deck
  - Moving money from one hand to another- various sized coins
  - Placing coins, buttons, beads in rice or beans and attempting to extract by touch or sensation only
• Tasks to keep mind sharp:
  - Word searches/scrambles
  - Socializing with peers/volunteering in community
  - Memorizing names and birthdays of family members
• Maintain strength in legs/balance:
  - Complete sit to stand several times from a chair, try to complete with legs doing most of the work and arms just assisting as needed
  - Stand at a counter using arms to aid in support as needed:
     = Decrease your stance width and slowly lift hands from counter
     = Stand on one leg for a time as able.

(Above tasks should be done with caution as to not fall, use the counter for support if any loss of balance is noted).

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