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Elder Care: structured vs. task-oriented exercises

by Isabel Fawcett

Elders have as many physical exercise options as anyone else. Formal "seniorcise" programs, daily walks and medically-recommended rehabilitative exercises sometimes performed independent of allied health supervision are part of structured or planned elder exercise. Gyms and more physically rigorous exercise programs may not be appropriate exercise venues for all elders, especially those with chronic illnesses.

In her 70's my mother enjoyed a local televised senior exercise program featuring low-impact exercises for elders. The physical trainer, Ruth, was in her 70's at the time. Ruth demonstrated various exercises, including leg stretches while seated on the edge of a chair, leg lunges, and more.

Seated on a sofa, my mother stretched, reached and kicked keeping pace with Ruth's televised exercise agenda. Occasionally, one of Ruth's exercise moves proved too engaging for Mom to remain seated. She quickly stood to keep pace with Ruth's exercises. I told her that she and Ruth reminded me of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, hands waving in the air, hip moving faster than the speed of light.

Ruth's former program and message was that exercise need not be formal for elders. Neither do elders have to stop exercising because they cannot bench press weights. Elders with chronic joint problems may exercise in groups in large swimming pools where weightlessness in the water and careful movement lessens the impact of exercises on chronically inflamed joints. Almost any structured and repetitive activity helps promote physical and mental well-being regardless of age.

Check with a doctor prior to initiating or increasing any exercise routine.

In-Home Exercise Opportunities Abound

As part of medical intake, medical providers ask patients whether they get any exercise. The question is especially important when asked of elders who may have become socially isolated due to chronic health issues and lacking transportation. Depending on a caregiver's or elder's answer, and subject to medical restrictions, doctors may recommend a stationary bicycle, other simple exercise equipment, or daily walks to increase exercise.

Examples of Elder Exercises

In spite of chronic mobility impairment issues, my mother regularly exercises in-home.

Kitchen Work. In the kitchen, she loves washing, drying, and putting away dishes, pots and pans. Her self-imposed kitchen duty requires repeated bending, overhead reaching, stretching, grasping and frequent shoulder rotation movements. She remains on her feet the entire time, by choice. Before she turns in for the night, she makes kitchen rounds wiping down counters, ensuring that the kitchen passes inspection.

Ironically, the whole time, I'm a tired caregiver after cooking, providing direct care and otherwise being engaged in life.

Sweeping. Sweeping the garage, driveway and the front of our home takes time due to her mobility impairment, but sweep she does at least once weekly--sometimes more frequently. She takes breaks as she sees fit to visit with neighbors.

Working in the garden. Garden cleanup detail is her forte. She enjoys watching me work in the garden. The minute I finish bagging garden clippings, she invariably appears out-of-nowhere to tell me that she will take each of the bags to the trash receptacle. She also loves to return my garden tools to storage. Just when my tired caregiver's body is about to collapse, my mother gets her second wind via in-home exercises she selects.

One of my friends who is a fellow caregiver to her parent put it best. She once gave me unsolicited feedback that I allow my mother "to do as much as she can on her own." Why would I ever want to come between my mother and her preferred in-home activities? Not only is she getting much-needed exercise for stiff, inflamed joints, she tells me she enjoys being "useful." My mother has always gone above and beyond, including in daily exercise at the age of 84.

I would prefer to avoid discussing stair climbing. Caregiver, zero. Elder scores one stair fitness point. Stair climbing is one exercise I wish my mother would tone down. There is no stopping my mother She has a mind of her own, thank goodness. She enjoys multiple stair climbing adventures...daily.

As Don Rickles used to say in his comedic routines, so I say to her: "I'm keeping an eye on you."