Getting Seniors Moving

What if you only burned 54 calories or spent less than a minute moderately exercising a day? That’s the average movement seniors in assisted living facilities may be getting, warned our latest Penn Institute on Aging’s Visiting Scholar speaker. Older adults in all sorts of settings – in nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and even at home – are moving less.

Last week, we were excited to have Barbara Resnick, PhD, RN, CRNP, Sonya Ziporkin Gershowitz Chair in Gerontology and Professor of Nursing at the University of Maryland, come share her expertise with us, on optimizing function among older adults, in essence, getting older adults moving. Dr. Resnick is the first nurse to become President of the American Geriatrics Society. She explained that, without movement built into daily activities, older adults may lose function, slow down even further, and be at increased risk for infections such as pneumonia.

Here’s a quick video recap from Dr. Resnick’s talk:

The ability to move – to get dressed, to walk to the bathroom, to feed yourself – is precious and can be taken for granted. As people get older and frailer, their motivation to preserve and maintain their movement ability seems to dip. Sometimes, caretakers can help “too much,” from lacing up shoes or bringing in a bed pan, limiting the amount of movement patients have.

As Dr. Resnick asked, “How do you know if someone’s capable if you don’t ask them to get dressed, feed themselves, go to bathroom?” In hospital settings, she cited a sobering statistic: in one study, hospitalized elders spent 83 percent of their time in bed. Often, the only time they were out of bed was to go to physical therapy.

To counter the inactivity, she suggested infusing movement into daily activities. Even 10 minutes of activity is important. While it may take longer for a loved one to get dressed without help, it’s a valuable exercise for them to do.

If you care for someone who could use some extra activity in their lives, Dr. Resnick offered a few tips to help optimize function for older adults:

Set up an environment that is safe, clear of any clutter, and comfortable to move in. Acknowledge, anticipate, and prevent any barriers to movement: fear of falls, pain, fatigue that comes with activity, she says. Individualized care makes a difference. So, if the height of a bed or chair is making it difficult to rise from, adjust accordingly.

Educate the patient’s care team, to help them understand that the older adult will be taking a more active role in their own care. Moving more means less risk of pneumonia, infections, and building strength to complete daily tasks.

Assess the individual’s capability – physical and cognitive – then set goals. What do they want to be able to do, both short term, and long term. Do they want to attend an important event (wedding, graduation, etc.)? Or maintain independence when bathing?

Motivate the older individual and their caregivers. Try reigniting old interests, such as swimming, and add new and different activities, like tai chi. This helps strengthen motivation and resilience. To motivate those with cognitive impairment, modify how you communicate the activity. You may need to use one step commands, repetition, or demonstrations to convey the message. People with dementia may not remember activity, but will remember it felt good and it was enjoyable, said Dr. Resnick.

Just remember – any activity is better than nothing!