How to Stay Healthy and Independent at Home
- If you're aging in place, it's important to be aware of potential health risks as you get older. Check out our tips for staying healthy, maintaining your independence and keeping yourself safe.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for anyone at any age, but it's particularly important for seniors to do as they age. As you grow older, your body changes, and so it may be important to adjust your diet, exercise routine or other aspects of senior health.
Find some tips and resources below on how to stay healthy at home.
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
Staying healthy as you age is important because making suitable lifestyle choices may help you prevent health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers. Review these five tips to stay healthy as you enter your twilight years.
1. Eat a Healthy Diet
This one may seem obvious, but it's so important for healthy aging. The food you put into your body is used for energy, and it provides you with the nutrients your body needs so it can function properly.
Good nutrition can help boost your immunity and perhaps help protect you against certain diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
As you age, your metabolism slows down, so you need fewer calories each day than you once did. Choose foods with lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories, such as:
- Fruits and vegetables, including fresh and frozen
- Whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread and brown rice
- Low-fat dairy, including milk and cheese, with added vitamin D and calcium
- Lean meats such as chicken and pork, seafood and eggs
- Beans, nuts and seeds
2. Stay as Active as You Comfortably Can
When it comes to maintaining senior health, being physically active is one of the most effective. Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, keeps weight under control and helps to boost your mood.
Try to aim for 30 minutes of walking each day. If that seems like too much, you can break it up into shorter sessions, like three 10-minute walks a day. Wear supportive shoes and go at your own pace — don't overexert yourself. Make sure to drink water while you exercise to stay hydrated.
3. Challenge Your Mind
A lifestyle that includes plenty of cognitive stimulation through active learning activities may help your brain stay healthier. According to the Alzheimer's Association, as of 2020, 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, which means it's more important than ever to keep your mind sharp and body healthy.
A recent study at Harvard found that learning a new skill can slow cognitive aging. That doesn't mean you have to do something elaborate, like learning a new instrument or taking an adult education course, although you could do those things if you had the means and the time.
If you're looking for simple ways to exercise your mind, try some of these suggestions:
- Crossword puzzles
- Word searches
- Tabletop puzzles
- Card games
- Brain-training apps, such as Luminosity or Brain Age
Any activity you find mentally stimulating can help keep your mind sharp.
4. Get Enough Rest
Changes to your sleeping pattern are a normal part of the aging process. Seniors may have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep compared to when they were younger.
Some research suggests that sleeping difficulties among seniors may be attributed to physical or mental illness as well as the medications being used to treat those illnesses.
According to one study published by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, as many as 50% of older adults complain about difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, and insomnia is more prevalent in older individuals than in younger populations.
To help counteract any sleeping difficulties you might be having, try to develop a regular schedule with a nightly bedtime routine. Make sure your bedroom is both dark and free of noise besides anything ambient you might need, such as a fan. Also, try to stay away from caffeine late in the day, as this might keep you awake.
If you're routinely having sleeping problems and you have concerns about this, you can talk to your health care professional about your options. Getting enough rest is an important area of senior health because it lets you live your life during the day feeling awake and rested.
5. Connect With Others
Whether it's making time for daily conversation with your kids or having coffee with your neighbor, social connections are important for senior health. Humans are social creatures by nature, and some studies have found that social isolation and loneliness in seniors can give rise to health risks.
Research from the National Institute on Aging has linked social isolation to a higher risk of a variety of physical and mental conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weakened immune system
- Cognitive decline
- Alzheimer's disease
Seniors are more prone to feeling lonely as well since their spouse or partner may have passed away, friends or family have moved or they may be retired.
If you're not sure where to start, you can volunteer in your community or join a book club. Go for a walk or have coffee and conversation with a neighbor or friend, and as you form closer friendships, you can turn mealtimes into social events.
Senior Health Resources for Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
The HHS maintains a Healthy Aging1 resource page, which includes resources for staying active, maintaining connections in your community, eating healthy, mental health and managing medication, among many others.
National Institute on Aging
The NIH has several pages related to senior health2, including exercise tips and information on how to get started with a program that works well for you. There are also several informative articles on topics such as healthy eating, cognitive health and doctor-patient communication.
SilverSneakers3 is a health and fitness program designed specifically with seniors in mind. It lets older adults take fitness classes specifically catered to seniors, and it provides access to on-demand workouts that seniors can do at home on their own time.
SilverSneakers is also included with many Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans, so it might be a program available to you at no additional cost. It's best to check with your current Medicare plan to determine your eligibility.4
Fitness locations, gyms and community centers throughout the country participate in the SilverSneakers program and offer exercise classes and workouts.
The goal of SilverSneakers, as its website states, is to “help [seniors] stay strong in body, mind and spirit.”
Senior Health: Home Safety
In addition to getting enough exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and socializing, home safety is another important senior health consideration.
If you live at home, and especially if you live alone, falls can pose a severe risk to your overall safety.5 And if an unexpected medical emergency occurs, you need to be able to notify emergency personnel quickly and efficiently.
Check out several home safety options below that can help improve your quality of life and provide you with peace of mind.
If you're aging in place, there are several home modifications to consider, all of which can help improve your quality of life at home and increase your overall safety.
If you rely on a wheelchair or walker to navigate through your home, wider doorways are an important modification to consider. The costs for doing this can vary widely, and fortunately, some Medicare Advantage plans may help cover home modifications designed to help you age comfortably and safely at home.
You may also be able to apply for a low-interest loan or a grant to help defray the cost.
If you find yourself unsteady on your feet or having occasional balance issues, ramps are a great substitute for outdoor stairs. For many seniors, the cost of installing one is well worth the independence it provides. There are many licensed, reputable contractors who are experienced at installing ramps at the correct height and rise for seniors.
Sturdy Banisters on the Stairs
If you're still able to get up and down the stairs without too much trouble, make sure the handrails are sturdy and in good working condition. Handrails on stairs can help prevent accidental falls.
Sometimes as seniors age, they find appliances are not in ideal locations or that cabinets and countertops are suddenly too high because they're in a wheelchair. Many experienced contractors can modify how your kitchen looks so you can easily access things from a seated position. These modifications can range from the complex, such as lowering the height of the sink, to the more simple, such as moving the microwave onto its own stand instead of keeping it under a counter.
Shower and Bathtub Modifications
Depending on your medical needs for aging in place, you may want to consider adjustments to your bathroom. For instance, a walk-in shower may be a safer option instead of a full bathtub, which requires you to step into it. A walk-in tub is another option, which lets you enter the bath more comfortably, and it may also include a set of handrails for extra stability and more comfort compared to a traditional tub.
Less expensive adjustments may include adding safety strips or a safety bar in the bathtub, which may help prevent accidental slips and falls.
Seniors are more likely to trip on carpeted areas, especially at the edges when it transitions to a different flooring surface. If you don't want to remove the carpet from your home, consider a type with a lower pile. It provides a cozy surface, but its flatter nature makes it easier — and potentially safer — to walk on.
Other flooring options include hardwood, tile, linoleum and vinyl. These types of floors are smooth and may allow for easier maneuvering.
Adding assistive technology systems to your home is an easy way to make it safer for you. Most of them require no permanent changes to your home's layout or structure. For example, home monitoring systems help you feel secure when you're not home, and activity monitoring can help you stay active and thriving throughout the day.
Medical Alert Systems
Medical alert systems are ideal for seniors who want the peace of mind that comes with 24-hour protection in case of emergency. Medical alert systems typically consist of a wearable device, and activating it in an emergency puts you in touch with a medical emergency dispatcher, who can then either call for help via 911 or contact a nearby friend or family member.
Types of Medical Alert Systems
When medical alert systems were first introduced in the 1970s,6 they were designed to work within the confines of your home and were connected to your landline telephone. If you prefer, you can still get a system that works this way. Some phone companies even offer the option of home-based systems that work over a cellular network7 if you don't have a landline.
Other systems utilize wearable call buttons, so you can call for help wherever you are. Other companies may offer mobile options as well, so you can use the medical alert button even when you're out and about and not at home. These types of units generally incorporate GPS technology to help pinpoint your location and operate over cellular networks.
According to the AARP,8 one common problem is a senior may slip and fall, but the medical alert device needed to activate emergency help is in the other room or otherwise not nearby.
This is why wearable devices provide an advantage because they can be activated no matter where the medical emergency occurs. Some units may even have automatic fall detection, but this depends on the carrier.
Life Alert9 is one company that offers medical emergency assistance to seniors. The company has its own dispatchers, who speak to seniors who are injured or who have fallen and send the appropriate help, if necessary. It offers services for on-the-go emergencies, shower accidents and at-home medical protection.
If you want more information about Life Alert, you can call 1-800-360-0329 or visit its website.
LifeFone10 is another example of a medical alert system. It offers seniors independence and safety at home and when they're out and about. The LifeFone system includes a waterproof pendant and wristband, and the equipment has a range of 1300 feet in any direction.
LifeFone offers several options for emergency medical assistance to suit your lifestyle:
- At-home landline
- At-home cellular
- At-home and on-the-go GPS
- At home, on-the-go GPS and a voice in necklace
To find out more information about LifeFone, you can call 1-800-331-9198.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of seniors 65 and over fall.11 The CDC also notes that more than 1 in 4 older adults fall each year, but less than half tell their doctor about it.
Although many falls don't cause injuries, many of them can — and do — cause broken bones or head injuries. For seniors who take certain medications, such as blood thinners, head injuries can be especially serious.
Furthermore, many people who have fallen but didn't get injured become afraid of falling, and this fear can cause them to cut down on everyday activities, such as exercise, eating right or visiting friends and family, all of which are important parts of good senior health.
Conditions That Make Falling More Likely
According to the CDC, some lifestyle and health factors may increase the likelihood of falling as an older adult. Here are some to keep in mind:
- Lower body weakness
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Difficulties with walking or balance
- Taking certain medications, such as antidepressants, sedatives or tranquilizers
- Vision problems
- Unsupportive footwear
- Throw rugs or high-pile carpets that can be tripped over
How Can Falls Be Prevented?
Even though many seniors are at high risk of falling, there are some things you can do to help prevent falls and keep yourself safe while at home.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you let your doctor know that you're concerned about your risk of falling, they may be able to help. Your doctor can evaluate your risk based on your current and past medical history and review the medications you're taking. They might even recommend a prescription-strength vitamin D supplement.
Preform Strength and Balance Exercises
As much as you can, you can practice simple exercises at home that might help improve your overall strength and balance. Yoga poses designed with seniors in mind is a good example or even Tai Chi.12
Ensure Your Vision Health Is Monitored
Have your eyes checked by an ophthalmologist at least once a year, and get your eyeglasses prescription updated if it needs to be.
Implement Any Necessary Home Modifications
Review the list of home modifications above and decide if any of them make sense for your situation. Many of them, including safety rails in the bathtub and near the toilet, sturdy railings on the stairs and installing low-pile carpet, can help reduce your risk of falling.
In addition, installing bright light bulbs to ensure you have plenty of visibility when getting around may help as well because it makes tripping less likely.