Independent living: An interview with a Mayo Clinic specialist

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Independent living: An interview with a Mayo Clinic specialist

You can maintain your independence at any age. Asking for assistance can help you achieve this goal.

Photo of Paul Takahashi, M.D.Paul Y. Takahashi, M.D.

Independent living is probably something you've taken for granted most of your life. As you become older, independent living can present more of a challenge. Many older adults say they'd like to live independently as long as they can, but you may find that your definition of independent living changes as you age. What steps can you take to ensure that you live independently as long as possible? And, should you need help, what kind of services are available to help you meet your goals? Paul Takahashi, M.D., a geriatrician at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., offers his advice.

Why is independent living so important to so many older adults?

In my experience, maintaining a sense of independence represents a good quality of life. As a geriatrician, I've talked with many older adults regarding their concerns about becoming older. Most people don't want to live longer — they want to live better. They're concerned about living as independently as possible for as long as they can, whether that's in their homes, a senior apartment or an assisted living center. Typically, people want to remain in their homes, drive their cars and enjoy the activities they normally do.

How does independent living change as you age?

Independent living is a very individualized issue. It varies based upon your needs, where you live and your family support. I suggest that you think of independent living as maintaining the highest level of functioning you can in whatever environment you're in.

For example, you might live in a nursing home for a variety of reasons. This doesn't mean you can't have any independence — that you can't be as active as you can be in the nursing home. Whatever your living situation, work with your doctor to determine how you can increase your level of independence.

Think about it as adapting to your environment and abilities. This is a common human response. We learn to adapt at a very young age. When you were too short to reach the kitchen sink, maybe you used a step stool. As you become older, adapting may mean you need to use a bath bench in the shower or ask a friend to drive you to the grocery store.

What can you do to maintain independent living?

Independent living involves planning and action. The most important thing you can do is set goals and plan for the future. If you want to maintain your independence, talk with your doctor about how you can accomplish that. It might just mean purchasing a new pair of glasses so that you're seeing as well as possible. Or it could mean making adjustments to your home to decrease your risk of falling — for example, by removing scatter rugs or increasing lighting. If your needs are greater, it may mean using a cane or walker or asking for help with certain tasks.

One of your most important goals should be maintaining your physical health. Try to:

  • Exercise and stay active. Set goals for physical activity, even if it's as little as walking 10 minutes a day using a walker. Exercise improves muscle and skeletal strength, which may reduce your risk of falling and help you stay in your home longer. Use assistive devices, such as canes or walkers, if you need to.
  • Manage chronic health conditions. If you have chronic conditions, such as heart or lung disease, set goals to manage them. Take medications as directed.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Make sure you're eating enough food and drinking enough water. Maintain a healthy diet based on a variety of foods. And be sure to get enough rest. Also consider modifying your home and driving habits to create a safer environment and make it easier to accomplish daily tasks.

In addition to setting goals to meet those basic needs, make sure you're connected to other people. Maintain a good network of family and friends. Consider volunteering to remain in touch with the community. Staying connected helps prevent the risk of isolation. I actively encourage people to be involved, to have a purpose for waking up every morning — set goals for what you want to do each day.

When is it time to ask for help?

Different people have very different needs and in different stages. For example, you might need help making sure your bills get paid, mowing the lawn or completing tasks within your home. At some point you may need to ask about using a walker or other device to help you get around. Or you may need a nurse or therapist to visit you once a week, or have Meals on Wheels deliver food each day.

Later it may not be safe to stay in your home alone, and you may need to consider a smaller or more structured environment, such as an apartment, an assisted living center or a nursing home. Whatever your situation, be willing to ask for what you need.

Who should you ask for help?

For some people, asking for help can be difficult. Life is a circle. At some point your children or others probably relied on you for help. Don't be afraid to ask them for help when you need it. Talk to your doctor, family or community organizations and agencies about what services or options are available to meet your needs.

Last Updated: 06/30/2005
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