Lack of Mobility is a Lack of Independence

Photo: Deposit Photos

By Dr. Marc Helzer

If we are fortunate to live long enough, all of us will eventually wrestle with the same question as we age: What can I do to maintain my independence?

Fortunately, this question is more pertinent now than ever. One in four Americans who turn 65 will live into their 90s. For this age cohort, planning for changes in mobility is essential.

Formerly simple actions ― moving the feet, turning the head, moving the arms ― become more difficult as we age. Lack of mobility is a lack of independence. Falls and motor vehicle crashes, accidents that depend heavily on our motor skills, are the leading causes of death for Americans older than 65.

Ironically, independence has been a problem as much as a solution over the last two-plus years.

The COVID-19 pandemic necessarily reduced the amount of in-person social interaction for people of every age group. Social interactions hold a particularly vital function for seniors, forming the basis of the very activities many use to stay mobile and maintain their independence.

Can a person walk the perimeter of an indoor mall, learn tai chi or yoga, or go birdwatching by themselves? Sure.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

But for many seniors, like all of us, a social component can be essential to motivation. People 55 and older need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity or 75 minutes of more vigorous activity. For those who have committed to exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week, having a workout buddy can help.

Technology can bridge the gap in meaningful ways for those who are committed to a workout routine. Pelotons are no longer exclusive to outdoor bicycle races. Zoom has enabled many group workouts. But for seniors who are technology-averse and lack the support system needed to learn a new gizmo, these avenues for social exercise aren’t available. This trend is particularly problematic against the overall backdrop of public health trends among seniors. Osteoarthritis, loss of balance and diabetes are on the rise among Americans older than 65.

Seniors’ mental health was negatively affected by the pandemic, too, though not to the same degree as young adults. The COVID-19 pandemic did not merely disrupt seniors’ social routines, however: by reducing their social contacts, it complicated the question of how to maintain their independence. In turn, that indirectly reduced life expectancy for many seniors by reducing their mobility ― to say nothing of the elevated mortality rates among seniors who contracted the coronavirus.

For those who need to re-establish their pre-pandemic social routines, there is no better day than today.

Your livelihood depends on it.

Where to Begin?

The Centers for Disease Control offers MyMobility Plan, a guide to staying mobile as we age. You can bookmark or download the many resources on this page, as well as its customizable charts and checklists, to tailor a mobility plan to your individual needs.

Physical therapy is an excellent tool to get a person moving too. It’s often available to seniors at low or no cost. A short physical therapy appointment in an individual or group setting can help jumpstart a long-term exercise plan.

Pride is a surprisingly common barrier for seniors who would benefit from physical therapy. Remember, it’s not a judgment (i.e., “you’re too weak to go it on your own”) but rather like hiring a personal trainer ― a coach who takes a direct, personal approach by offering as much help as you’re willing to accept.

If motivation is still elusive, consider the financial costs of losing your independence. A quality assisted living facility comes at great cost. That burden is often shouldered by the families of senior citizens.

The reality is simple: if we cannot care for ourselves, someone else must. The notion of “use it or lose it” applies to our mobility, balance, flexibility, reaction times, and physical strength. There is no third choice.

Dr. Marc Helzer is a primary care physician specializing in family medicine at the University of Michigan Health-West. He is Board-certified in Family Medicine and received his Medical Doctorate at the University of Michigan Medical School. University of Michigan Health-West
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