It is no secret that some form of physical activity is good for our overall health. We all know this, yet it can be challenging to talk ourselves into doing physical activity after a long day of work even when we are feeling well. So imagine how much harder it is for your aging loved one, who may be dealing with health issues, to want to do physical activity. It can be tremendously hard watching a loved one struggle physically with aches and pains or chronic illness/disease. Whatever the case is, you may begin to feel a bit helpless, and your loved one may certainly begin to feel weary and discouraged.

Overtime, seniors experience decline in strength, flexibility, and mobility. Additional health conditions only intensifies these components. On average, the strength of people in their 80s is about 40% less than that of people in their 20s. However, research suggests that improvements in physical function are possible well into older adulthood.

What is Physical Therapy?

This is where physical therapy can come into play. Physical therapy is for the preservation, enhancement, or restoration of movement and physical function that has been impaired or threatened by disease, injury or disability. It utilizes a combination of therapeutic exercises, stretches, and physical modalities, such as massage or electrotherapy, along with assistive devices and patient education and training.

5 Health Conditions Common for Physical Therapy:

1.) Osteoarthritis (OA)

The physical therapist would work with the senior on range-of-motion exercises. So, for instance, if your loved one has OA in the knee, abnormal motion of the knee joint can lead to a worsening of OA symptoms, when there is additional stress on the joint. Strengthening the muscles around the knee would be a key part of the rehabilitation program. Individuals with knee OA, who adhere to strengthening programs, have been shown to have less pain and an improved overall quality of life.

2.) Falls

Balance training has been shown to be an important and effective part of falls prevention for seniors. The physical therapist would design exercises that would challenge your loved one’s ability to keep their balance as well as recover from a loss of balance. Another important piece would be an individualized strengthening program that would focus on specific muscle groups to help improve standing balance.

3.) Urinary Incontinence

The physical therapist would teach specific exercises to stretch and strengthen important muscles that assist with supporting proper bladder function. The physical therapist may apply gentle electrical stimulation to help improve awareness of muscle function in that area.

4.) Alzheimer’s Disease

In the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease physical therapists focus on keeping seniors mobile and help them continue to perform their roles as much as possible in the home and in the community. They may do things like the mirroring technique. The physical therapist serves as a “mirror” standing directly in front of the person to show them how to move. They would also do what’s called a task breakdown. Physical therapists are trained in how to give step-by-step instructions by breaking down the task into separate steps. For instance, if the therapist wants to teach a person how to safely move from lying in bed to sitting in a chair, the therapist might have the person practice rolling to the side, then pushing up to sitting, and then moving to a chair in separate steps.

5.) Chronic Pain

The physical therapist would create a program designed for your loved one’s particular problem area – such as knee, back, arm/wrist, shoulder or neck. It could include graded exercises to help improve coordination and movement which reduces the stress and strain on the body. The physical therapist might also do some hands-on techniques to manipulate or mobilize tight joint structures and soft tissue.

There are many other instances that are not listed here, where physical therapy can improve a particular ailment. Please contact your loved one’s doctor to find out more. The doctor can direct you to a physical therapist who has experience working with seniors.

Challenges of Physical Therapy

The physical therapist is going to ask your loved one do exercises at home. This can prove to be one of the more challenging parts to physical therapy. As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to want to do physical activity especially when not feeling well. When you become frustrated that your loved one may not be eager to want to do these exercises keep their common pains of aging in mind. However, it does not mean that they get a pass either. As to whether or not physical therapy will be beneficial, hinges upon if your loved one does the exercises at home. One way to help motivate them is to have rewards or incentives available after they complete so many exercises. It could be taking them to their favorite place for lunch or to see a movie. You know them best, so figure out what would motivate them. Another way to motivate them is for you to do your own exercises along with them. When you have someone to do exercises with it makes it much more feasible and it also provides an opportunity to hold each other accountable. Lastly, encourage and remind them of the potential benefits that could come from doing the exercises.

It’s important to have realistic expectations. No, they may not come home asking for you to dig up your old Jane Fonda workout videos to do, but they should hopefully be, at the very least, moving a bit better and with more ease.

Do not become disheartened if your loved one is not seeing results right away, especially if the issue is chronic. These things take time, and initially, it may even regress, but that does not mean it will not improve. You can of course address any concerns you may have about progress with the physical therapist.

Once they complete their physical therapy sessions, it would be advantageous to continue with some of the home exercises, and if possible, to join silver sneakers or a program at the YMCA. If your loved one does not continue with either some of the home exercises or a senior exercise class, they risk things going back to the way it was prior to the physical therapy. Therefore, this is a crucial part to long-term benefit.

Physical therapy may not be a panacea, but it can certainly improve functionality for your loved one. With that increase in functionality, they will be more likely to feel up to physical activity. Now, it will take some work and it won’t be easy at times, but the benefit will be well worth it. Remember, change is a process, not an event!