Living into old age is a dream that many hold. However, it is one thing that comes with a number of hitches that range from unrelenting illnesses to constant dependence; old age is indeed a period that comes with a set of challenges.
That is why October 1 was set aside to mark The International Day of Older Persons; a day that sets a platform to pull attention for the elderly with intentions of promoting awareness on issues such as their social welfare and provision of adequate healthcare among others.
The elderly are bound to face health risks because as they age they become weaker and more susceptible to disease.
Conditions elderly are prone to
Dr Leon Ngeruka, a doctor at Rwanda Military Hospital, says that is in old age physical activity reduces, and with this, fat tends to increase and the body weakens.
“Loss of activity makes the body lose energy, major body organs start to weaken, the heart starts to weaken, as well as lungs, among others. This is when a number of health conditions kick in,” he says.
Ngeruka points out conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and kidney diseases, among others, as some of those conditions that attack the elderly.
Loss of memory or dementia, disk prolapse where the cartilage present between the vertebrae shift out of position are also among the common conditions seen in the elderly, he adds. “With disk prolapse, the person gets a tingling feeling in the hands or legs, lower back pain, numbness in the arms or legs among other parts.”
Ngeruka adds that arthritis is another condition that affects older people.
“Rwandans face this condition only that the climate eases it a bit because when it’s warm the condition is controlled in a way,” he says.
Ngeruka explains that this condition comes as the body weakens but there are other conditions that can bring about this. Conditions like gout, there are also people who can have a lot of uric acid which can go into joints and then such a condition arises.
Research done by Healthsite, supplements Ngeruka’s point of view indicating that as a person grows, the cartilage that is present between two bones slowly starts to degrade. Soon it reaches a point where it becomes extremely thin and allows the bones to rub against each other. This causes pain, inflammation and difficulty in moving the joint.
There are other reasons for arthritis, like an over-active autoimmune system that causes rheumatoid arthritis; the one caused due to old age (osteoarthritis) is most commonly seen in the elderly.
The research adds urinary incontinence as a condition the elderly are prone to. With this, a person cannot hold or control the flow of his or her urine. Urinary incontinence is a condition that is caused due to the weakening of the sphincter muscles (muscles that control the flow of urine).
“One of the most common methods of resolving this condition is to use adult diapers that can soak the excess urine. Other methods include the use of exercises like the Kegel exercise to strengthen the muscle,” the research says.
Taking care of the elderly
Venuste Muhamyankaka, a nutritionist with SUN Alliance Rwanda, says older persons are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition.
“First, their nutritional requirements are not well defined. Since both lean body mass and basal metabolic rate decline with age, an older person’s energy requirement per kilogram of body weight is also reduced,” he says.
Actually, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDAs) for the elderly is too low for riboflavin, vitamin B-6, folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and calcium, and are probably too high for vitamin A, he explains.
“Therefore, older persons should eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, plant proteins like beans and whole grains to maintain and improve overall health,” Muhamyankaka says.
Ngeruka adds that most of these health conditions can be overcome by eating right mostly and keeping one’s body active.
He also points out that a balanced diet is very crucial for the elderly, noting this as something people should get to do away with before they hit old age.
“Just like with this 1000 days campaign right from pregnancy to the first two years of a child’s life, eating well should be something we should always do throughout our lives and not just wait for old age. Everyone needs a balanced diet only that their needs may differ in quantity.”
The medic also adds that refraining from certain habits such as over drinking and smoking can be crucial in maintaining a healthy life for older persons.
“Getting enough sleep, doing sports like walking for at least thirty minutes daily, swimming, playing tennis, and going to the gym, can really help. The body becomes active hence giving chance to blood flow,” he adds.
Besides maintaining a balanced diet, Jackline Iribagiza a Kigali-based counsellor says that at times taking care of the elderly goes beyond eating right.
With this, she calls onto families to be supportive since the elderly people are like children who need a lot of care.
“In most cases, at this stage in life children are grown ups and are struggling to build their own lives leaving the elderly alone; but visiting them can be supportive. Have someone to be left in their care since anything can happen and you wouldn’t want it to happen when they are alone. The person taking care of the elderly has to be understanding and patient,” Iribagiza says.
She emphasises that family and friends keep contact with the elderly as a way of making them understand that they are not alone.
“Take grandchildren over for holidays; this makes them feel like they have a family and besides it creates a bond,” adds Iribagiza.
Sheikh Hassan Bahame, the director-general of Community Development and Social Affairs at the Ministry of Local Government, says the elderly did a big job for the country hence it’s our turn to show them support.
“This day calls for people to join hands to show support towards the eldelry such that they age gracefully. With this they get to see that they have a country and people who love them,” he says.
Bahame points out that a number of initiatives have been undertaken for the elderly and these include constructing for them homes, tending to their farms, and doing general cleaning in their homes, among others.
He adds that by the end of this year; a policy that mainly looks out for the welfare of the elderly is set to be put in place.
Usually the day is celebrated on October 1, but celebrations were postponed to October 8.
“We celebrated at the village level such that every Rwandan takes part. On the national level it will be celebrated from Nyamasheke district,” says Bahame.