Expert: How to make the elderly more active in the autumn

Autumn is a time that can lead to activity slowdown, sometimes even apathy, also among older people. The increasingly colder and shorter days together with less sunshine are all factors that lead many older people to limit their walks and outings beyond the minimum necessary. The late autumn landscape and the weather around All Souls’ Day can also create a reflective and melancholic mood, reminding us of the passing of time. The autumn of recent years has been particularly unkind in this respect.

Last year was marked by another wave of pandemics, which took a deadly toll and was full of anxiety, and this year? Also immersed in a multitude of pandemic losses, threats and limitations, at the same time bearing the fruits of the fatigue of already more than 1.5 years of living in the covid shadow. For the elderly and their activities, these consequences can be particularly acute. From the beginning, seniors have been a group particularly at risk of a severe course of the disease, or even death as a result of infection, which has led many of them to temporarily suspend all activity, and sometimes even complete home isolation. Also, especially in the first phases of the pandemic, many initiatives and institutions such as senior citizens’ clubs and universities of the third age temporarily suspended their activities. Many older people who ceased their activities at that time may now find it psychologically difficult to return to them after a longer break. The loss of rhythm of life and vitality in old age can be difficult to reverse. And even today, free activity is not possible due to the still raging pandemic. Still not all senior citizens are vaccinated, and even those who are, are not 100% protected. It is hardly surprising that some of them choose limited or no participation. Some have also lost loved ones, either through coronavirus or other illnesses, and the loss of a loved one can be a situation that throws off the psychophysical balance and can be a reason for withdrawal.

There are also seniors who have been through Covid-19 themselves in the preceding months, and even if in their case the course of the disease was not very severe, the experience has severely fractured them psychologically and they still feel the anxiety associated with it to this day (I personally know Covid recovering seniors with just such an experience). Special attention should be paid to older people living alone. For them, any illness – and this is happens all the time during the flu season in autumn – becomes a source of mundane difficulties, with supplies, walking the animals etc. For some people, such threats are a reason to give up or limit their activities. Both outdoors and at home, for example, when hosting other people.

It is also worth mentioning that the activity of seniors in Poland has been statistically limited for a long time. It is not only a matter of slowing down in the autumn period or dramatic circumstances of a pandemic. Research conducted by the Central Statistical Office indicates that the percentage of people aged 60+ participating in various forms of physical activity is modest (3/4 people at this age do not practise sport at all). The only relatively popular physical activity – although it concerns only 50% of people at this age – is walking[1]. Other forms of social or cultural activity are also disturbingly rare in the experience of older Poles. In this sense, we are dealing with a more permanent and universal problem, and seasonal circumstances exacerbate it.

Can this be remedied?

On a personal level, talking about seniors in our family or neighbourhood – people with whom we have or have had at least somewhat close relations, we can try to refresh these relations or undertake initiatives to motivate older people to become active. When talking about activity, however, one should not limit oneself to organised, group-based forms of social activity or to strictly sporting activities. Sometimes it is worth starting with something simpler, especially when addressing a person who has remained isolated or passive for a long time. You can start with a friendly conversation. If we know such a person in terms of his or her interests or preferences, it is worth referring to this in order to revive them psychologically a little, to give them energy. Sometimes it is a good idea to offer to visit, which may motivate the person, e.g. to tidy up the space around them or prepare a small snack. Some people living alone and falling into apathy sometimes stop even such quite basic household activities, and the prospect of a visit can be an impulse to undertake these seemingly simple activities. However, it is necessary to approach such proposals with maximum sensitivity, so that the person does not feel uncomfortable – does not have a sense of being intruded upon, etc. Given that many older people live in low-income households, when visiting them it is also worthwhile, if possible, not to come completely empty-handed.

Sometimes in old age we also have to deal with depression – not always realised, let alone formally diagnosed – and then simple gestures may not be enough, but more professional help is needed. Reaching out to people who have become inactive can be a first step to spot such problems, to encourage them to ask for support or to help them get it. Some people in old age may prefer to meet not at home, but outdoors, which is especially desirable from the point of view of activity and health. For this reason, it may be useful to offer, for example, a walk in the neighbourhood or to go to a place where the person would feel comfortable (such as a café, cinema, etc.). Some people may have difficulty getting around and may not always be prepared to ask for help. If you have a car, it might be a good idea to suggest a short trip to the countryside or somewhere attractive, which could also be good for the health of seniors who have been stuck in their own flats for months.

Activity possible not only outdoors

Although outdoor and moderate physical activity is highly recommended, we should not stop there when thinking about promoting autumn activity for seniors. There are many valuable and also attractive activities at home – perfect for autumn days and evenings. For example, a variety of card games, board games and other entertaining exercises, which also have a health-promoting dimension by training the memory and cognitive skills, and, if these are not played alone, a social dimension which is sorely lacking at this time. Some of these activities can also be done partly remotely, although in some cases the digital exclusion of a large proportion of older people can get in the way. However, this might be a good time to fight against this exclusion. Even if an elderly person does not have appropriate equipment at home, you can bring your own equipment, if you have it in the form of laptop and smartphone, and use these mobile devices to familiarise the elderly with the possibilities offered by virtual reality. Who knows, perhaps after some time the older person will “catch the digital bug” and it will also become an area of activity for him or her. In order to maintain and stimulate the activity of elderly people, it is worth using the opportunities offered by telephone contact. These opportunities are all the greater if we purchase phones adapted to the needs of older users and/or introduce functional applications that can also help organise regular activity and ensure safety.

It is good to ensure that our thinking on activating older people is, as far as possible, profiled in such a way that it does not depend only on our presence and support, but also opens up to other, broader contacts or suggests possibilities for independent activities. It is therefore worthwhile, for example, to look for information on events and initiatives in the local area, in which the older person might be interested, to tell him about them and to encourage him to take part, and sometimes to accompany his first steps into a new social environment.

Seniors from outside the family environment

We are thus moving from the individual to the social. It is important for us – as a younger generation – to recognise needs of not only seniors or people in our circle of relatives, but also those who are lonely and have no relatives or do not keep in touch with them. There are various tried-and-tested channels for reaching and supporting such people. We could mention, for example, the Little Brothers of the Poor Association, which has been operating for many years and implementing the ‘Presence’ programme, in which the activities of older people in various forms are forged as part of the bond between them and volunteers. There are also many other initiatives that flourished with the onset of the pandemic, some of which are still in existence. Some of these are of a typically supportive nature, e.g. in terms of provision for older people, but there are also those in which, through interaction with older people, it is easier for them to find the strength to be active to the extent of their abilities or needs.

dr Rafał Bakalarczyk

[1]    caritas-raport-senior.pdf, s. 56

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