New Study Shows How Adaptable Seniors Really Are


Seniors have, traditionally, been divided into two categories for healthcare purposes: those who can live independently and those who are disabled or cannot perform the Activities of Daily Life (ADLs) on their own.

But a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health and reported on in the New York Times divided 38 million adults enrolled in Medicare into five more useful categories for gaining insight into how best to help America’s large, aging demographic.

A Spectrum of “Capabilities”
The new study categorizes seniors across what the researchers call “a spectrum of adaptation,” providing five different designations for various levels of independence. These five categories include seniors:

  • who live independently
  • who have a handicap but successfully use technology to overcome it
  • don’t do as many of the same activities as they used to, but refuse to admit to their limitations
  • who admit it is difficult to perform certain activities, but live independently anyway
  • who require assistance for ADLs

The study, further, identifies the percentage of Medicare enrollees in each group. The breakdown?

Approximately 31 percent of senior on Medicare are fully independent. The second largest group, 25 percent, leverage assistive technology to live without help from other people. Six percent reduce their activities without acknowledging a problem, while a substantially larger group (18 percent) admit that living independently is difficult but do it anyway. Finally, about 20 percent of Medicare recipients receive personal assistance with at least one activity each month.

What Do These Numbers Mean?
It’s one thing to look at percentages and realize they provide us with new information, but what do these numbers really tell us? First, it shows how “technology,” from hearing aids to wheelchairs or other, more advanced tracking technologies, help seniors live on their own longer with fewer concerns.

Secondly, it shows that those 24 percent who either live independently and could use a little help or refuse to admit they need help could benefit from the same assistive technologies that have helped those in the first group. Finally, it shows that there may even be greater hope for those who currently receive help to once again manage independently.

As geriatricians acknowledge those in the bottom three groups on the spectrum of adaptation, this leads to ways to help these groups. In most cases, the technology is already there. It’s simply a matter of recognizing when it’s needed and providing it to those in need.

How Caregivers Can Help
If you are a caregiver responsible for a senior’s well-being, look at ways you can help them to be more independent. This may not raise them to the level of that second group, completely independent with the use of assistive technology, but it may improve their level of independence and alleviate some of the burden on you, as the caregiver.

Independent living, assisted living communities, and Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) likewise, could benefit from evaluating seniors in their care or on their property and determining if assistive technology could improve their level of independence, increasing their self-esteem and helping to avoid the depression that is so common as seniors realize they need increasing levels of care for ADLs.

The study, headed by Vicki A. Freedman with the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and published in the American Journal of Public Health, could pave the way to important discussions and steps toward improving the quality of life and encouraging independence for seniors as they age.

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