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Encouraging Elder Independence: How Independent Living Fosters Senior Autonomy

By Claire SamuelsJuly 5, 2021
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Remember when you walked to the bus stop on your own for the first time? Or when you picked up the keys for your first home or apartment? Growing up, we often see new forms of independence as milestones — whether it’s taking our first steps or getting a driver’s license.

As aging affects health, mobility, and memory, seniors may struggle to feel control over their everyday lives. But senior independence can help older adults maintain a sense of autonomy, even as circumstances change. Some markers of independence — such as driving safely and living alone — may not be possible past a certain age or physical condition. However, even basic decision-making and task-completion can offer a sense of accomplishment that boosts self-worth and well-being.

“We know how important it is for seniors to stay independent, so we give them the opportunity to make choices every day,” says Ryan Fean, REC regional connector at Holiday Retirement, a group of over 240 independent living communities headquartered in Winter Park, Florida. “Residents tell us what they want to do and what’s important to them, and we can support that.”

Learn the importance of elder self-sufficiency, how independent living communities work to help seniors stay independent, and what you can do to support elderly relatives at home.

How elder independence maintains health and well-being

Empowering older adults to make daily decisions promotes healthy aging and improves well-being in later life. In fact, older Americans who feel self-sufficient — whether in a senior living community or at home — may be less likely to be diagnosed with chronic conditions and more likely to self-report good health, according to a study conducted by Stanford University and the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan.

One important marker of independence seniors can maintain is daily decision-making. . For example, having access to transportation allows seniors to choose where they want to shop and which doctors they’d prefer to visit. An accessible kitchen lets them cook their favorite foods.  Encourage seniors in your life to continue their daily routines or make adjustments to best support the retirement lifestyles they desire.

“Residents tell us the stuff they don’t want to do, and the tasks they still want to accomplish — some folks want to continue cooking and cleaning, while other people never want to make a home cooked dinner or fold laundry again,” says Fean. “We’re here to take those things off their plate, but help them stay independent.”

Elder independence reduces isolation

Senior independence doesn’t have to mean being alone. Social isolation and loneliness can lead to poor mental and physical health in seniors, according to the National Institute on Aging. While choosing to age in place may seem like an independent choice, it often limits a senior’s social opportunities and increases isolation.

Lack of access to transportation, changing neighborhoods, and the death of friends can make it difficult to maintain a social life while living alone.

“Having a built-in community of other residents, all you have to do is open your door to find a neighbor, or go to the dining hall to find 40 more,” says Fean. “The opportunities are always there in independent living — if someone wants to get involved, they’re able to do so.”

4 Ways independent living communities foster senior independence

While it may seem counter-intuitive, moving into a senior living community can actually help foster elder independence. These communities provide the resources and amenities older adults need to maintain physical, mental, and social autonomy.

  1. Independent living communities reduce senior safety risks. Nearly 90% of homeowners approaching retirement want to stay in their homes as they age, according to a study by the Federal Housing Administration. But houses may have stairs, high thresholds, and other potential hazards.
    Independent living communities are equipped with ramps, widened doorways for wheelchair access, and in-room safety features like grab bars and emergency alarms, allowing seniors with limited mobility to safely continue their daily routine. These amenities can prevent falls, hip fractures, and other injuries that decrease long-term physical independence.
  2. Senior living promotes physical health. Independent living communities also schedule activities to promote daily movement, strength, and physical well-being.“We offer fitness classes in the morning and the afternoon, since people have different lifestyles and schedules,” says Fean. Classes offered include tai chi, water aerobics, yoga, and even cardio drumming, a full-body workout that involves dancing while miming drumming motions along to music.
  3. Independent living activities support senior choices. The ability to make daily choices is an important aspect of elder independence. Communities offer a variety of activities and welcome resident feedback. Holiday communities even have monthly meetings where residents can pitch activity ideas and help determine outings.“We’re serving them, and it wouldn’t make sense if they didn’t get a say in choosing,” says Fean. Each week, he puts up a sign-up sheet for residents to vote on Friday activities. Whichever proposal gets the most votes — whether it’s a trip to the library, a museum tour, or a picnic — goes on the following week’s schedule.
  4. Personal choice improves mental health. Seniors choosing their own activities doesn’t just promote independence in the elderly, it also reduces depression and other mental health concerns, according to research from Walden University. The autonomy independent living communities offer leads to a happier retirement.

4 ways to promote independence in the elderly at home

Not all elders want to make the move to an independent living community, but there are still ways you can help your loved one stay independent for as long as possible in their own home. Help support your aging relative’s independent spirit by encouraging them to remain involved in family life and their favorite activities.

  1. Encourage them to try new things. Many seniors have a set routine. Encourage your loved one to use retirement as an opportunity to shake things up and explore interests they may not have pursued before. Has your mom always enjoyed trips to the museum? Suggest a painting or pottery lesson. Does your dad watch documentaries about military history? Try out a class at the local community college or join a weekly VA meeting.
  2. Promote feelings of accomplishment. Consider results-oriented projects that can offer a sense of accomplishment, like crafts, redecorating, or even spring cleaning. Everyone appreciates the feeling of a job well done.
  3. Ask for their input when making decisions and plans. Having a say in daily decisions helps seniors stay independent. Whether it’s choosing favorite dinners, picking a movie, or planning family outings, give your loved one a chance to contribute.
  4. Help them make new connections. Staying social helps prevent loneliness. If your relative is a bookworm, suggest a local or virtual book club. Are they a foodie or wine enthusiast? Try out a cooking class or happy hour for seniors.

Whether your loved one chooses to age at home or make the transition to independent living, it’s vital to support their autonomy and encourage them to maintain independence.

Sources:

Federal Housing Administration. Aging in Place: Facilitating Choice and Independence.

National Institute on Aging. Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks.

Stanford University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin. Independence and interdependence predict health and wellbeing.

Walden University. Aging Well: Helping the Elderly Maintain Independence.

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Author
Claire Samuels

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