Coping in later years
For many, the golden years bring wisdom and serenity, freedom from the responsibility of caring for a family and the chance to indulge in some well earned rest, relaxation and 'me' time.
But others have to face challenges such as failing health, memory loss, financial hardship and even abuse. In many communities, older people bear the burden of providing care and support to an increasing number of orphans and vulnerable children, whilst caring for their own chronically-ill children with very limited resources and income at their disposal. We deal with some of these issues here.
Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we age. Experiencing difficulty remembering things occasionally is normal. However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be a sign of Alzheimer's Disease, a type of dementia.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer's is difficulty remembering newly learned information, because the disease typically begins in the part of the brain that affects learning. Patients in the early stages of the disease may have clear recollections of people and events from their childhood, but be unable to remember what they ate for breakfast. As the disease progresses, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms – including disorientation, mood and behavior changes, deepening confusion about events, time and place, unfounded suspicions about family, friends and caregivers, and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, but treatment can slow the rate at which it progresses, and improve quality of life for those with the disease and their caregivers.
Elder Abuse is a crime
Sadly, older people are vulnerable to ill treatment – especially in societies where poverty, crime and unemployment create hardship and frustration. Incidences where older people are mugged or even killed for their pension are common. Frail elderly people who are dependent on others for basic care may be neglected or denied food.
Elder abuse can take place in the home, at the hands of spouses, adult children and even grandchildren. It also happens in institutions such as hospitals or nursing homes – and can range from swearing or yelling at the victim to slapping, kicking or shoving them, or stealing their belongings.
Other forms of abuse are less obvious but equally damaging. For example: ignoring the elderly person; isolating them from friends; humiliating them, shouting or swearing at them or intimidating them.
Neglecting a helpless elderly person is another form of abuse. The caregiver might intentionally 'forget' their medication or administer an overdose, leave them dirty, or abandon them for hours on the toilet. Or they may not be given enough to eat or drink.
An elderly relative's pension may be stolen or a vulnerable senior may be forced to change his or her Will or hand over power of attorney.
This type of abuse is often not spoken about but is becoming more prevalent in our society. This type of abuse includes any conduct that violates the sexual integrity of an older person and would include sexual harrassment, exposure to pornography etc.
Identifying elder abuse can be difficult. Bruises and broken bones can easily be the result of a genuine fall. Elderly Alzheimer's patients often believe people are trying to harm them and wrongfully accuse caregivers of ill treatment or theft.
Conversely, a victim may keep quiet about the abuse - especially if they are afraid, or dependent on the abuser for food, shelter and care.
If you suspect an older person is being abused, contact the Chief Social Worker at the Social Development office or police station nearest to where you live. Alternatively, report the abuse anonymously to HEAL (Halt Elder Abuse line) at 0800 003 081.
Remember in South Africa, elder abuse is a crime.
Safety & Security
As we age, our physical abilities decline and our reaction time slows. We cannot respond as quickly as when we were younger, making us easy targets for criminals and also more susceptible to accidents in our own homes.
Stay safe when you go out
Preferably go out with family and/or friends rather than on your own. If you are going out alone, let someone know – a neighbour, family member or complex guard. Avoid walking early in the morning or late in the afternoon and avoid lonely or badly lit areas. Carry a cell phone with you, with emergency numbers stored in it.
Stay safe at home
If possible have an alarm fitted, with 24 hour emergency medical, fire and burglary response. Ask your security company to provide a mobile panic button and carry it with you (or wear it round your neck) whenever you are in the house.
If you have a security gate, keep it locked at all times. Make sure doors and locks open and close easily without jamming. Make sure your house number is large, well-lit and unobstructed so that emergency personnel can find your home quickly when needed. If you live in a retirement home, ensure you have communication with the guard at the main gate.
Install rails and grab bars in the bathroom and on stairs to reduce the chance of a fall. Get rid of loose rugs or install non-slip backing. Keep emergency numbers next to the phone, or programmed into a cell phone. Use a microwave rather than an open stove top to heat food. Turn down the thermostat on the geyser to avoid accidentally scalding yourself.
If you would like our Ageing in Place team to assess your home and suggest practical adaptations, please click here.