We will all eventually grow older. That’s a universal truth. What’s not universal is the way we age. Based on factors like exercise, lifestyle, illness, stress, and diet, as well as hereditary factors, our bodies and minds respond differently to the aging process.
As an employee of a senior living facility, it’s important to understand the basics of the normal aging process so you understand the changes going on in your residents and how to best care for them. It’s also important to know what symptoms are not part of the normal aging process and which ones can signify a more serious problem.
The Normal Aging Process
These are the normal signs of aging, internally and externally, that your residents have experienced or are experiencing.
As we age, our sensory functions (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch) slow or diminish. This is why your residents may begin to develop decreased peripheral vision or moderate hearing loss. They may begin to produce less saliva, which makes chewing and swallowing difficult. Additionally, decreased senses of smell and taste may affect a person’s ability to enjoy food and cause a loss of appetite.
Aging lungs become less elastic, which affects their capacity to expand and contract. The muscles used for breathing also become weaker. Because of this, the strength of each breath is weaker and coughing is less forceful. When an individual cannot properly clear their lungs the chance of infection increases.
Kidney / Bladder
Our kidneys are responsible for filtering our blood of waste and extra fluid. As we age, our kidneys work more slowly and less effectively. Additionally, our bladders become less elastic and cannot hold as much fluid. You’ll notice that your residents may need to take frequent bathroom breaks. They may have trouble emptying their bladders completely, which can lead to infection.
Height / Strength
Over the course of your life, gravity causes your spine to compress, which is why seniors often are smaller in stature. Other changes are muscles diminishing in size, joints and tendons losing flexibility, and bones becoming less dense. In your residents, you may notice complaints of arthritis pain, an increase in the risk of falls, and bones that break more easily.
With age, our skin becomes dryer and thinner, making it more prone to breakdown, tears, and bruising. Healing time can also take longer. We start to lose our underlying fat layer, which makes it harder to maintain body heat. This is the reason your residents may request extra layers of clothing when you find the weather incredibly pleasant.
Stomach / Bowels
Through time our stomachs begin to lose elasticity, meaning they cannot hold as much food. Digestion also slows down, as food moves through intestines at a slower rate. You’ll notice your residents may develop smaller appetites or often suffer from constipation.
Heart / Blood
Our heart undergoes many changes as we age. Our heart muscle thickens, while blood vessels and heart valves stiffen. This means our hearts can’t pump as efficiently, leading to an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, or even heart failure. This may be the sign of aging you notice most often in your residents. They may become tired and exhausted more frequently and may complain of feeling faint when changing position (lying to sitting, sitting to standing) too quickly.
Brain / Nerves
Inside our bodies, our brain and spinal cord begin to lose nerve cells and our brain actually decreases in weight. You may find that residents experience a slower response time and minor memory issues. Their reflexes may also be slower as nerve cells transmit impulses at a slower rate.
Residents can present psychological signs of aging. Depression is common among the senior population as they experience loss, feelings of social isolation, chronic illness, or worry and stress.
When the Aging Process is Not Normal
No two people “age” the same way, which can blur the line of what is “normal” in the aging process. However, there are warning signs that should alert you when a resident is experiencing something atypical.
Confusion or Memory Loss
Taking a little longer to answer a question or recall a memory can be expected as a person ages. Where a cause for concern rises is when a resident seems confused or can’t remember things that happened the day before. You may also notice an individual suddenly has difficulty with familiar tasks or makes a series of bad decisions. If these symptoms begin to disrupt daily life, they may signify the onset of Alzheimer’s or other dementia.
Internal changes can cause older individuals to naturally develop a smaller appetite and eat smaller meals. Additionally, changes in muscle tone and height can change a resident’s stature and build. However, extreme weight loss over a short period of time is a greater cause for concern. It can signal that a resident is suffering from depression, gastrointestinal disorder, thyroid disease, or even cancer.
Depression / Suicidal Thoughts
Growing older and transitioning to a senior living community can cause a change in a person’s attitude and personality. It may take a while for a new resident to warm-up to changes and come out of his or her shell. Even then, they can still experience moments or days when they feel blue. However, if you notice prolonged signs of extreme stress, withdraw from normal activities, deep sadness, or expressions of feeling worthless, you should alert a supervisor.