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How Loss of Independence for Older Adults Impacts Mental and Physical Health

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When making decisions about the health and wellbeing of older adults, there is often a tension between safety and independence. Mom is no longer safe to drive, but that means she can’t get around on her own; Dad keeps leaving the oven on, so now all he can cook for himself are microwavable meals. 

It makes sense, of course, to take action to help our loved ones avoid harm, but the physical and emotional impacts of diminished independence can also be serious. It’s important to consider the toll these decisions can take on our loved ones, and what we can do to help preserve their dignity.  

How diminished independence can impact well-being

We expect Mom to be unhappy when we take away her keys and Dad to protest when we suggest an in-home caregiver, but it’s the longer-term implications of these difficult transitions that are the primary concern.

According to the National Council on Aging, some of the most common causes of depression in older adults are decreased functional ability, reduced mobility, and financial issues – all of which are connected to a loss of independence. 

A study from the National Institute of Health also identified “social support that is perceived as excessive or unhelpful may be a risk factor for depression. Increased levels of depressive symptoms associated with the receipt of social support have been found among older adults with physical limitations who endorsed a greater desire for independence.”

Depression in older adults is largely misunderstood as a normal part of aging, but the CDC emphasizes this is not the case and treatment options are available. And it is important to take depression seriously in older adults, according to the World Health Organization, “Mental health has an impact on physical health and vice versa. For example, older adults with physical health conditions such as heart disease have higher rates of depression than those who are healthy. Additionally, untreated depression in an older person with heart disease can negatively affect its outcome.”

If you’re worried a loved one could be at risk for depression, learn what symptoms to look out for – things like fatigue, irritability, or persistent digestive issues – and help them avoid common triggers, like independence loss, when possible. 

What leads to diminished independence.

As we get older, there are a number of factors that can lead to diminished independence. Here are three common examples:

  • Bad falls: Every year, more than one in four adults over 65 suffer from a fall. In addition to physical injuries, a loss of independence often follows these stumbles.  A decline in the ability to move can lead to a decline in the ability to perform daily activities, increased reliance on others for assistance, and increased risk of social isolation –– all of which can lead to depression. 
  • Chronic pain: A majority of older adults experience chronic pain that significantly impacts their daily activities. And while it’s not surprising to hear that chronic pain leads to depression, finding a way to continue engaging in regular activities and perform daily tasks can help fight off depression and keep the pain from worsening.
  • Nervous relatives: While it’s important to have tough conversations with aging parents and elderly loved ones early on, many well-meaning relatives overreact to initial warning signs and limit independence more than is necessary. Before you take over mom’s financial life or move dad into a home, make sure you assess the true severity of the situation and react accordingly.

What can be done to preserve independence?

While your aging parents may not be in a position to do everything on their own, you want to enable them to maintain some independence. Here are a few ways to support their freedom:

  • Tech solutions: There are a number of ways that new technologies can help older adults maintain independence. From medication management to ridesharing to social networking to remote patient monitoring, older adults, and those who care for them, can benefit from a solution that meets the whole family’s needs. The True Link Visa® Prepaid Card is our own example of how to support the financial independence of loved ones while helping to safeguard their spending. 
  • Interactive caregiving: If an older adult needs the help of a caregiver, the type of care they receive can impact how independent they feel. Instead of a caregiver doing everything for their care recipient, they can do things alongside them, whether that’s writing a grocery list, planting flowers, or taking a walk around the block. In situations where a senior’s cognitive abilities have declined, supported decision making around financial or healthcare options may be appropriate so the individual isn’t excluded from the process. 
  • Staying Active: Activities that improve balance and strengthen legs can reduce risk of falls while walks in nature can also be good for an individual’s mental health. If getting around is difficult, even chair exercises can be beneficial. Mobility and independence are closely linked, so maintaining the ability to move around freely is valuable. 
  • Social engagement: Connecting with others and staying engaged in regular activities and hobbies can help someone maintain their sense of self. Families should encourage older adults to stick to their old routines as much as possible, whether that’s attending church, going to book club, or grabbing lunch with friends. It’s been shown that strong social connections can be literally lifesaving for older adults

It can be difficult to balance an older adult’s need for independence as they age with your own desires to keep them safe and healthy. But given the link between reduced independence and  other health consequences, the two sides of this scale may not be entirely at odds. 

Learn more about how True Link can help your loved ones spend safely and independently.

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