It is not always easy to find the right words or actions to encourage someone to be more physically active. No one can be forced or pushed to do things, which is why supporting the activity and independence of the elderly requires us all to show patience and scrutinise our own behaviour . It is particularly important to put emphasis on the resources the elderly person still has without helping them too much or doing things for them.
The coronavirus pandemic brought its own challenges to the daily lives of the elderly, and many have potentially became more passive. Special encouragement and support in restoring previous levels of physical activity are required in the more normal times after the pandemic. With these six tips, you can think about how you approach the life of a 75-year-old or older person close to you and the encounters where you can affect their daily level physical activity in a positive way.
1. Stop constant sitting
Excessive sitting is bad for your well-being and health regardless of your age. The elderly may sometimes sit for longer periods of time without even noticing as their functional capacity deteriorates. It is easy to think that you should not boss the elderly person around or make them stand up for no reason. However, it is possible to take breaks from sitting or reduce sitting with small acts. For example, when you visit an elderly person, do not use your own keys to enter and let the person you are visiting stand up and open the door for you.
2. Do things together instead of doing them for the elderly person
It is typical for loved ones to try and make themselves useful and offer to do chores for the elderly or do their groceries before visiting them. Instead of serving them excessively, you should try to determine the resources the elderly have and where they need help. For example, you can do daily chores or the groceries together with them instead of for them. Doing chores, cooking and setting the table together is not only fun but also supports the elderly person’s level of activity and independence.
3. Find the right motivation
In order to truly integrate physical activity and mobility in everyday life, the motivation has to be right. You should determine what is important and genuinely interesting to your loved one. For many, retaining their independence and living in their own home for as long as possible is important. According to surveys carried out by Age Institute, increased physical activity has concrete impacts on the daily lives of the elderly. For example, many who have taken part in group exercises have noticed that it is easier to walk up and down the stairs and that their balance has improved and they do not need to seek support from the walls anymore.
In addition to this, their minds are also stimulated with new life content, especially if it is possible to meet other people when exercising. Some are clearly motivated by sociality. Do you think an elderly person close to you would be motivated to take a walk or join a group exercise if they had the chance to meet other people? Interesting things to see can also be found outside the home, such as bird watching or nearby construction sites being slowly built.
4. Don’t give up
More motivation and encouragement is required from you in particular when the elderly person’s functional capacity starts to deteriorate. If the elderly person is not interested in going out, you can try and remind them of the last time you went out and how good it felt afterwards. The more you get used to staying inside, the more difficult it becomes to go out. You should not be discouraged even if the elderly person refuses to go outside—instead, continue motivating and encouraging them with determination.
5. Go outdoors
Going out is a good way to increase physical activity as it automatically involves walking. Take a moment for a walk every time you visit the elderly person. If your routine involves having a cup of coffee inside, maybe you could try taking the coffee with you outside in a thermos or have a little walk before having the coffee? Does the elderly person have any neighbours or friends who live nearby to go out with or are there any activities arranged in the neighbourhood? It is easy to do some small exercises when going out, for example, getting up from your seat. If the elderly person still has enough functional capacity, could they be interested in the outdoor gyms around the city?
If you do not live close enough to the elderly person to visit and exercise with them, there are a range of service providers for this in the form of different organisations, municipalities and companies. The Finnish Red Cross, for instance, arranges friend activities that can also include going out. Municipalities also train volunteers to go out with the elderly. There are also companies that provide similar services.
6. Exercise remotely at home
Remote exercises have been the saving grace of the coronavirus pandemic for many elderly people, bringing more physical activity and content to their daily lives without having to leave their homes. For some, it may be challenging to even travel to a class. The selection available ranges from interactive live classes in closed groups to recorded streams that can be watched whenever you want. The Age Institute’s Remote Exercise project showed that exercising at home can also improve functional capacity, as long as it is performed regularly. You can help the elderly person by studying the alternatives available, acquiring the necessary equipment and assisting in using it. Some elderly persons may be unwilling to try using digital devices, but they can slowly become familiar tools.
The planner of the Age Institute’s Strength in Old Age Programme, Heli Starck, was interviewed for this article.