Like so many things in life, growing old has its ups and its downs. The upsides are obvious; more time spent with loved ones and being productive, and more opportunities to enjoy and appreciate life and the world we live in be it a lovely sunset, the taste of fresh baked cookies, a hug, a good laugh, a warm bath on a cold night, listening to music…the list is as unique as each person on earth. And yet, there will always be downsides; the sadness that comes with the loss of loved ones, having a body that is not able to do what it once could (and may even be a source of pain and discomfort), and the loneliness and isolation that may accompany these losses. And when there is pain and isolation, depression is often not far behind.
In Medline Plus, a publication of the National Institutes of Health, the author of an article, Chronic pain is a growing problem among older Americans, writes, “Research has shown that 50 percent of older adults who live on their own and 75-85 percent of the elderly in care facilities suffer from chronic pain. Yet, pain among older adults is largely undertreated, with serious health consequences, such as depression, anxiety, decreased mobility, social isolation; poor sleep, and related health risks.”
The medical and psychiatric establishments are in agreement that having chronic pain can lead to depression, and that being depressed can heighten a person’s awareness of and focus on their pain. As both depression and pain can lead to increased inactivity, loneliness and isolation may also increase. Breaking the pain-depression–isolation cycle is key to improving a senior’s physical and mental health.
Certainly, medication can help with many types of pain, and can also help alleviate depression, but there are other things that those caring for seniors can do that will often bring them comfort. In How to Ease an Older Person’s Aches and Pains, published on the website, WebMD, the author offers practical suggestions. First, however, the author cautions that one must always ask before doing anything to or for another person. “Some people hold back from talking about pain. They may not want to be a burden, or they may feel that it’s a sign of weakness to admit it. Encourage them that it’s OK to let you know how they really feel, so you can help them take care of it. Ask the person you’re caring for if he is in pain. Many of the signs are obvious ― crying, moaning, clenched fists, “knitted” eyebrows. A poor appetite may also be a clue.”
WebMD’s practical suggestions include:
Soothe With Heat
A warm shower or bath, hot water bottle, or warm cloth can help relax muscles and ease muscle spasms.
Cold can numb pain and ease swelling. Try a cool cloth, cold pack, or ice massage.
Slow, quiet breathing helps relax the body and mind and ease pain. You can show your loved one or client how to do this. Lie or sit with one hand on your belly and take a deep, slow breath. Imagine filling a balloon in your belly with air. Then breathe out, as if you’re letting all the air out of the balloon. Think of breathing out stressful thoughts and breathing in relaxation. Aim for about six long, deep breaths a minute.
This can be as simple as a foot, back, or hand rub. With your whole hand, the heel of your hand, or your fingertips, apply gentle pressure in slow, steady, circular movements. Warm oil or lotion may help.
On their website, StopPain.org, the group, Net of Care, discusses symptom management and makes another useful suggestion, and that is to use distraction “as a pain management technique in which patients focus their attention on something other than their pain and negative emotions.” Ways in which a caregiver can distract a senior who is uncomfortable or in pain include:
- Listening to music
- Reading something out loud (poetry, magazine article, newspaper)
- Talking and/or telling stories
- Looking at photo albums
- Get outside for a change of scenery
- Paint or draw a picture
- Play a game
- Watch TV
- Speak on the phone
While growing older often brings with it new aches, pains, and losses, it can also bring deep satisfaction, peace, and acceptance. As people who care for the elders in our community, it is our role to help our loved ones and clients bear the downsides and enjoy the upsides. It is a good and valuable way to spend our time.