5 Insights for Encouraging Long Term Care Seniors to Stay Active

Staying active and independent isn’t just a subject for older adults in good physical and mental condition. Being intentional about an active lifestyle is also a core component to supporting the health and quality of life for seniors with limited mobility in long term care.

If you’re a care professional working with long term care seniors, here are a few tips from Dave Lykowski, a Sales and Clinical Support specialist for HUR. Dave has a degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis on Preventative, Rehabilitative Exercise Science. He also has a degree as a Physical Therapist Assistant and spent years working with patients on HUR equipment before moving into his current role, promoting and educating HUR customers.

We asked Dave to share his top 5 insights for how to encourage long term care seniors to do what it takes to remain as healthy and active as possible.

1. Be supportive and enthusiastic, but also realistic.

Pushing too hard can be a recipe for failure – especially for seniors – because it can lead to burnout, discouragement, and injury, conditions that create less mobility, not more.

It’s generally important to start slow because the less seniors move, the less capable and confident they become about their ability to move. Sedentary bodies need to build strength slowly. It takes time to adjust to more movement and to build a wider range of motion.

As care professionals, our goal is to disrupt a patient’s sedentary lifestyle in a way that’s efficient enough for them to gain some momentum and see some progress, but also slow and effective for long term health.

Recognize – and reinforce with your patients – that small changes create the foundation for bigger changes. As the adage goes, How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

Another thing that I want to point out is that most Senior Living Communities that include long term care and assisted living are tasked with being the “provider of all.” They are trying to create programs and quality living situations for a wide range of ages, abilities, cultures, backgrounds, and interests. They have their work cut out for them!

But, when it comes to physical health and wellbeing, it’s incredibly important for care professionals to have the structure and training to be as proactive as possible when it comes to patient health. This only happens when a commitment to wellness comes from the executive level. The community’s decision makers must embrace a movement first mentality to an extent that physical fitness and health are the core of the community’s values and programs.

When that happens, the entire staff is in a position to be more responsive to the wellness needs of their residents.

2. Encourage consistency.

Whenever possible, set up systems that help seniors get into the habit of being active and increasing their strength every single day. Committing to regular exercise can improve energy levels, enhance mood, help us sleep better, control our weight, and decrease risks associated with a host of diseases. But the key is consistency.

If you can get someone to commit to just 30 minutes of exercise every single day – no matter what their ability level – it will make a tremendous difference in their life.

Too much sitting has been linked to increased mortality. This is a real challenge for seniors in wheelchairs. But, the more you can get them moving – in whatever ways they can – the greater the chance they have of not only beating the odds but generating a much higher quality of life.

One thing I want to emphasize here – moving in useful, safe ways is especially important for people in long-term care who have limited mobility and might be recovering from injuries. It’s not that any and every kind of movement is beneficial – the right kinds of movement are beneficial.

One of the most effective ways of ensuring consistent movement that’s also structured and supervised for safety is through fitness classes. During a class, the instructor can help participants perform specific exercises in the right way. Equally beneficial is the social connection. Social connection is a huge factor in helping seniors stay motivated. When they know that people will notice if they’re not there, that alone can motivate them to show up.

Exercise classes – or regularly scheduled appointments with a physical therapist or trainer can also help establish a routine. When we are able to make exercise a habitual part of our life, we are much more likely to stick with it for the long term. As caregivers, our goal should be to start small and focus on helping the seniors in our care develop habits.

One thing I’ve noticed is that for many seniors, morning exercise routines are the most effective. As the day wears on, unexpected visitors, social engagements, and feeling tired can all get in the way of showing up to exercise. Scheduling classes and training sessions at the beginning of their day is one of the best ways to ensure they’ll stick with it on a consistent basis.

Another important factor in encouraging consistency is the relationship that residents have with staff members. When residents know that staff members genuinely care about them and take the time to get to know them, that relationship can be incredibly motivating.

3. Focus on flexibility and range of motion, not just strength.

At HUR, we focus a lot on the importance of strength building. This is for good reason! Building strength is extremely important to independent living on any level and quality of life. But, exercises that increase range of motion and flexibility are also incredibly important.

For seniors using wheelchairs, being able to transfer themselves from their wheelchair to another surface involves both strength and a relatively decent range of motion. Other tasks that we think of as simple – like leaning forward enough to open a door, or reaching overhead to open a cabinet – require a range of motion and flexibility. These are skills that must be trained and built up over time.

4. Build strength.

Functional training exercises that help seniors perform the actions of daily life to the best of their ability are incredibly important when working with seniors. The focus is on building strength and mobility in ways that directly impact what the person does outside the gym, in their daily life.

For example, someone who wants to be able to get something down from a cupboard will need to use their arms to push themselves up into a standing position, hold on to the counter for balance, then reach up and over their head, grab the object, and safely bring it down while lowering themselves back into their chair. That one movement requires a lot of different muscles working together.

Some seniors are in a wheelchair because they don’t have enough strength in their lower bodies to safely move around. So, sit to stand exercises are great. If someone doesn’t have any control below the waist, all exercises should be focused on building as much strength in the core and upper body as possible. For others, who have mobility in their lower body, but very little muscle strength, it’s important to focus on slowly building leg strength, which will help them engage in other activities that will build strength throughout their body.

Exercises that focus on pulling and pushing actions, such as a seated resistance row, chest press, lat pulldown, or shrug exercises that build strength in the shoulders can help seniors perform simple tasks like lifting a bag of groceries.

At HUR, we have a whole line of wheelchair-accessible strength training equipment that helps build upper body strength. Two of my favorites are the Optimal Rhomb and the Push Up/ Pull Down machine.

They are SmartTouch equipped, so wheelchair users can wheel themselves right up to the machines, scan their bands, and the machine automatically adjusts to them and their training program. The Dip/ Shrug is another one of my favorites because it trains the same movements of getting yourself out of a chair or picking up a sack of groceries.

The goal is to create a program that will help seniors gain and maintain as much independence as possible. The way to do that is to focus on the muscle groups and movements that mimic the movements of daily living.

5. Help seniors know how to be aware of their own body and how it communicates with them.

Unfortunately, discomfort and minor aches and pains are a part of getting older. This is compounded in people who are injured or in poor physical condition. For many people, the number of aches and pains will increase after beginning a new fitness program. This is often a sign of progress, signaling that muscle growth is happening. However, it’s important for seniors to understand when those aches and pains are telling them something more. In general, when someone is experiencing sharp, stabbing pain, it’s a sign that something is going wrong and needs attention.

Show patients how to train without locking their joints, moving through their routine with mindful, slow, steady, controlled movements. Remind patients that even though consistency is essential, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to safe, effective training.

Beginning a new fitness routine is never easy. It’s even more challenging when faced with limited mobility or injury. But, it’s not impossible! The importance of regular exercise for older adults cannot be overstated. The benefits touch every dimension of life – physical, social, emotional, even spiritual.

It’s never too late to get started.