In Time for the Fourth of July, a New Look at Senior Independence

Senior and family with American flags at Independence Day picnic

We all like to be in control of our own lives. As soon as babies can crawl, they will howl in protest if we pick them up when they're on a mission. That next milestone of independence, the teen years, also usually features little skirmishes between young adults and the parents who want to keep them safe.

Sooner or later, and often as not, the tables begin to turn. Children who were the recipients of all those lectures while growing up are now delivering admonishments to senior parents. Chances are the folks appreciate their concern — but few older adults are happy to relinquish their independence!

Several 2019 studies from North Carolina State University provide insight into factors that promote a sense of control for older adults. One study published in the March 15, 2019, issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences is titled, "Feeling Young and in Control: Daily Control Beliefs Are Associated With Younger Subjective Ages." While we could definitely quibble about using "young" as a shorthand for health and ability, the study emphasizes that feeling control over our lives promotes good mental health. Prof. Shevaun Neupert, an author of the study, says this research "highlights the importance of having older adults retain some sense of autonomy. It's not just a nice thing to do; it actually affects their well-being."

In January 2019, Neupert took part in another study that pinpointed three factors that influence the degree of independence a senior feels:

  • Mood. The team found that being in a good mood made seniors feel better about their competence and control; being in a negative mood could bring on a sense of helplessness.
  • Stress level. The team found that feeling stressed out reduces the feeling that we can do the things we want to do — and the effect can linger on after, even when we don't feel so stressed.
  • Sleep quality. Neupert says, "We found that sleep efficacy — or the belief that one can get a good night's sleep — was associated with better control beliefs."

"This finding is important because when older adults begin to lose their sense of autonomy, it can lead to changes in behavior that adversely affect their health and well-being," said Neupert. "When people think they have little or no control in their lives, they may stop doing some of the everyday things that are important for self-care, because they believe those things don't matter."

This is one of the cyclical patterns we want to avoid as we age! Loss of independence can lead to depression, stress and poor-quality sleep … which, in turn, affect our health and make it less likely that we'll remain independent.

Promoting a sense of independence in older adults

Common health challenges can create a barrier to independence in our later years. So we need to plan for a future in which we might need help. If we later face an impediment to control, better to find a solution than to give up.

Deciding where to live is a big factor. There's the "aging in place" conundrum: While living at home is most associated with independence, health challenges can make it difficult to do the things we want to do in that setting.

Moving to a senior living community can be a good option. In many of today's retirement, assisted living and memory care communities, there is an increased emphasis on patient-centered care, with more choice for residents. This is something to look for as you are selecting just the right place.

If staying at home still seems like the best choice, learn about care that can be provided at home. Maybe you already have help with housekeeping, yard care or home maintenance. It's not such a leap to add in-home personal care if the need arises. Professional in-home care can be a real plus when it comes to maintaining a sense of control over our lives. Here are a few things to remember:

In-home caregiver helps senior client exit the car

Professional care normalizes family relationships. There's an adage in elder care: "You took care of me, now it's my turn." We want to care for our senior loved ones as they need it — and stepping in is such a human impulse. Yet seniors who gladly helped children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with dressing, bathing and going to the toilet seldom feel the same about it when the roles are reversed! And many seniors express the fear of "being a burden." But professional care feels different to most. It's more comfortable and, depending on family dynamics, seniors are less likely to get into a battle of wills with a home care worker!

Home caregivers can provide transportation. The older we get, the more likely it is that we will have to give up the car keys. Vision problems, loss of flexibility and memory loss all can make it unsafe to drive. Wanting to go someplace and not being able to get there can quickly leave us feeling helpless. Seniors who rely on friends and family for a ride often think, "I don't want to impose." But they aren't imposing on a person whose job it is! In-home caregivers can provide transportation to doctor appointments, shopping centers, a friend's house or the place a senior volunteers.

In-home care promotes good health. As the study above showed, loss of control can be intertwined with loss of health. Home care helps break that cycle. Professional caregivers can prepare nourishing meals that promote energy and overall health. The caregiver and client might go to the grocery store together — choosing that one perfect avocado for the salad is one of those little pleasures we don't even think about until it's gone! Caregivers also can provide supervision and encouragement as clients go for a walk, work out with a video, or head out for an exercise class at the senior center.

With home care, even if we can't do all the things for ourselves that we once could do, we can still feel satisfying autonomy.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.