As the population of the United States ages, they will have the highest rates of chronic conditions, including diabetes, obesity, arthritis, heart disease, and dementia. Despite these conditions, today’s aging population will live longer than their predecessors (Touhy & Jett, 2018).
Nurses are in a unique position to promote lifestyle and health care changes that can support higher levels of wellness in this aging population. In order to best promote healthy aging, nurses need to:
Getting older is a natural part of life. As we age, how we feel as a whole, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, creates individual wellness. Healthy aging to me is related to a person’s well-being as a whole and functional ability to do what is important to them and live independently as they get older.
This depends on many factors, including genetics, socioeconomic factors, social interaction, marital status, lifestyle, and environment (Touhy & Jett, 2018). A person is not just a biological being, but a multidimensional whole, and how parts of this whole are cared for throughout a person’s life can affect how healthily they age. As a person ages, there are some aspects of health that will decline inevitably; vital organs gradually become less efficient and sensory processes, such as vision and hearing, generally decline. Short-term memory gradually declines and physical strength declines as a person ages as well (Touhy & Jett, 2018). Although the body’s ability to function gradually declines as one ages, wellness can be maximized and diseases reduced by promoting wellbeing early in and throughout the aging process. I feel that healthy aging is a journey that is unique to each individual person, and involves one’s ability to resiliently adapt physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually throughout the process. As future health professionals, we can promote healthy aging by identifying areas of need and assisting elders to achieve the highest level of wellness in relation to their individual situation and point in the aging process.
There are many areas that can affect the aging process, and nurses can play an integral role in assisting an older adult as they encounter individual issues related to aging. One area of importance throughout the aging process is nutrition. The quality and quantity of a person’s diet are important factors in preventing, delaying onset, and managing chronic illnesses related to aging. Proper nutrition indicates that all essential nutrients are sufficiently supplied and used to maintain health and wellness (Touhy & Jett, 2018). Proper nutrition in older adults has been shown to be associated with significantly higher physical and emotional quality of life, better functional status, and reduced risk for disease. Unfortunately, research shows that essential micronutrients obtained from fruits and vegetables are sub-optimally consumed by older people (Marsman et al., 2018). The ability of an aging adult to fulfill their nutritional needs is often related to lifelong eating habits, ethnicity and culture, socialization, income, transportation, food knowledge, functional impairments, loss of appetite, altered smell and taste, and/or dentation (Touhy & Jett, 2018). Nurses play an important role in addressing elderly nutritional issues, and should begin with including a comprehensive nutritional assessment of their patients. Because causes of poor nutrition are complex, an aging individual will have unique obstacles related to their nutrition. A nurse must assess causative factors, and individualize interventions to ensure adequate nutrition for older people. I think one of the greatest and most empowering interventions we can provide is patient education, which should include nutritional requirements, diet modification for chronic illness, age-associated changes related to nutrition, and community resources to assist in maintaining nutrition. Research shows that nutrition education in combination with motivational strategies can effectively treat or even cure diseases at the pre-symptomatic stage, prevent the progression of chronic disease, and enhance the quality of life for older adults (Amarantos, Martinez & Dwyer, 2001).
Another area that affects the aging process is spirituality. Spirituality is a complex concept that can influence an older adult’s capacity to reach their deepest individual meaning and inner peace. Spiritual well-being can be considered the ability to experience and assimilate meaning and purpose in life through connecting with self, others, nature, art, music, or a greater power. Such spiritual connections and practices can play an important role in helping older adults cope with life challenges and can be a source of strength during the aging process (Touhy & Jett, 2018). Nurses should assess older adults for spiritual distress and promote spirituality on an individual basis. According to Gaskamp, Sutter and Meraviglia (2006), an important way that nurses can promote spiritually in an aging adult is by assisting them to feel balance and connection with a greater power. Research shows that interventions that promote a feeling of hope can provide connection and a renewed sense of meaning to an older adult. Building a caring relationship, assisting with grief and personal loss, and suggesting support groups through religious, cultural, or community affiliations are all ways that a nurse can support a patient’s spirituality (Gaskcamp, Sutter & Meraviglia, 2006).
As adults age, they may become more vulnerable and at risk because of cognitive, psychosocial, or physical problems. Recognizing and evaluating risk factors that can lead to injury or an adverse outcome in the more susceptible elderly population is another important role for nurses. Nurses should assess elderly patients for vulnerability and risk through patient interview, physical examination, medical history, lab and radiographic studies, cognitive testing, and through examination of functional ability, support system, financial ability, and safety issues (such as medication management, fire hazards, suicidal ideation, falls, driving, wandering, and aggression). It is also important to explore potential financial, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Once assessment indicates risk, intervention will depend on the individual, and should support autonomy, while ensuring safety and reducing morbidity and mortality. Depending on their risk factors, elderly patients can be offered support and assistance in areas such as home care, ongoing medical follow-up, meal delivery, and transportation (Culo, 2011).
Nurses caring for older adults have an opportunity to promote the health of the whole person– body, mind, and spirit. Throughout an individual’s aging journey, nurses can encourage healthy aging by identifying areas of need and assisting elders to achieve their highest level of wellness. Nutrition, spirituality, and risk factors are areas nurses should evaluate per individual and implement corresponding interventions accordingly. Such interventions that promote healthy aging practices can help enhance quality of life and functionality status in the elderly adult.