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50+: Live Better, Longer

Physical Therapy a Boon for Seniors

Would you believe in a nondrug treatment that works for arthritis, cancer pain, Parkinson's, and incontinence and improves your strength and endurance? There is one -- physical therapy.
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How can physical therapy help dementia and Alzheimer's patients? "We try to maintain function," Bottomley says, adding that the types of movement the patient remembers from the past is most effective, such as dancing or gardening. "This also prevents falls."

Balance is another issue with older people. "Balance is very complicated," Kauffman says. "It requires many systems in the body -- nutrition, oxygenation of blood, muscle strength, joint receptors, vision, inner ear. Physical therapy can tune up all of these areas. In one case, peripheral vision, patients are asked to throw and catch a weighted beachball that curves and wobbles through the air unpredictably, like a knuckleball.

Therapy is almost always prescribed for hip fracture and replacement patients, amputees, and those with joint aches and pains. "I call the latter 'grandparenting injuries,'" smiles Bottomley. "The grandkids come over and the grandparents take extra walks or climb on the playground equipment. Come Monday morning, ouch."

Role of Family

Even though an older person may have had a hospital stay or required extra attention, family members should be positive and supportive of more trips -- this time to therapy, Kauffman says. Relatives also need to understand the loss of mobility and independence. "It was a frightening experience to go home and be dependent," Davidson says. "They put up some grab bars, but I could not do things for myself.

Kauffman urges that family members never be dictatorial or expect a certain level of progress. Davidson adds, however, that you should find a therapist with goals and not one who is letting the insurance run out "hoping" you will improve.

Families should participate rather than nag, according to Bottomley. "When you come over, say, 'Mom, are you up to a walk?'" It is also important to be sure the patient is eating correctly -- bring microwaveable meals, or else your loved one may be living on crackers and cheese.

Above all, physical therapy is an ongoing process -- a journey. And as with all journeys, there will be ups and downs. Realistic expectations and a sense of humor help. In one case, a stroke victim had a little trouble with splatters in the bathroom, so he threw water all over his pants and came out warning others about the rogue faucet that had drenched him.

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