Aging with a Disability
ADVANCEMENTS ARE IMPROVING LIVES
Due to advancements in many areas of our lives, aging with a disability may not be as difficult or challenging as it was in previous times. Science, medicine, technology, and civil rights have all combined to provide people with disabilities a more equitable place in society, and a more comfortable way of living. Some of the ways in which people with disabilities have experienced practical and valuable changes in their lives are:
- An increased life expectancy
- Surgical and other medical procedures to alleviate pain and increase mobility
- Medications to assist in functioning more actively in society
- Assistive technologies to facilitate people participating in society on an equitable basis
- Medical research which has facilitated an increased understanding of how our bodies function and the aging process
- Civil rights and Disability rights activism which has promoted the equitable participation of people with disabilities around the world
It is valuable to note here that the subject of aging with a disability is still a relatively new one in the world of research. In fact, it is only fifteen years ago that the subject was considered one of importance.
A LOOK AT THE RESEARCH
Research on aging with a disability has been ongoing for only about 15 years, but many new discoveries have already challenged previously accepted beliefs. The single most important finding is that “chronic disability” is not at all static over the life span. Many, if not most, persons who live 20+ years with a disability or who are 40 years of age or older encounter substantial new medical, functional, and psycho-social problems that were neither expected nor planned for at an in earlier age. Many of these changes are well underway by middle age; some are even underway by age 30 or as soon as 10 years after one acquires a disability. While the exact causes of this “premature aging” are unknown, the following discussion shows that persons with disability do not age in a typical matter .
One of the results of the research (which admittedly is still in its infancy) is that people with certain types of disabilities seem to age faster than their non-disabled peers. In other words, these individuals at 50 function far more like a person who is 70. Some of the questions researchers are asking include the following :
Accelerated biological aging processes.
Is there something inherent in disability that alters the course or rate of aging at the cellular or organ system level?
Wear and Tear.
Does living with a disability for a long period of time place increased stress on the body?
The era of onset.
Is the critical variable really when the person became disabled? People with disabilities of 20, 25, and 30 years duration received rehabilitation in a different era.Medical and rehabilitation care, technology, and social factors have changed markedly over the years. Are the problems observed today caused by the care that was given then?
Does a major impairment like polio or cerebral palsy start a cascade of metabolic changes at culminate in a variety of illnesses that were not diagnosed in earlier decades because people didn’t live long enough to develop them?
Are excess disability and health problems due to living for years in an unaccommodating, disability-causing environment?
PEOPLE WHO ARE ACTIVE LIVE LONGER, MORE FULFILLING LIVES
It is not surprising to learn that research conducted by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center has proven that people with MS and spinal cord injuries muscular dystrophy, and post-polio syndrome reported that a more active life led to the following :
- Increased happiness
- Higher degrees of resilience
- Reduced feelings of stress
- Increased desire to do regular things such as work around the house, etc.
- An overall higher quality of life
- Reduction in feelings of depression and fatigue
- Improved sleep
INFORMATION FOR CLINICIANS
It is highly important that clinicians in various disciplines such as Medicine, Social Work, Psychology, and Psychiatry understand the importance of encouraging their patients who have disabilities to live an active life as much as possible. Without regular activity, the body becomes slack and out of shape. There are many opportunities now for adapted exercise and individuals can be as active as possible even reaching new heights such as training for the Paralympic Games.
LET’S TALK ABOUT RESOURCES
Here in Ontario, there is an organization devoted to supporting a healthy aging process for people with disabilities. It is simply called Aging and Disability, and they understand the changing needs of people with disabilities over the life-span. Not surprisingly, there are several areas which people need to pay attention to:
- Regular exercise
- Healthy nutrition
- Safety in the home
- Guidelines for physical activity
- Get involved with social activities
Another excellent Canadian website is ConnectAbility.ca This site is primarily devoted to health and wellness for people with intellectual disabilities, and has both fine strategies and resources to offer. On the same topic, there is the Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities.
THE INDIVIDUALITY OF THE AGING EXPERIENCE
It’s important, to be honest about the aging process; it’s not the same for everyone, and it won’t be the same for everyone with a disability. We all age in our own way, and some of us will just age faster than others. Many people remain active well into their 90s, while some people find it challenging to be active in their 50s. “The implications of aging with a disability and the potential for acquiring a secondary condition vary by the nature of an individual’s primary health condition. “ Personal factors are also a key part of the issue. Some people have wonderful support networks, a wide group of friends, social activities they love, and a comfortable home. Other people struggle with poverty, lack of a family and other crucial resources. There is no one ‘picture’ we can take of what it means to age with a disability. The factors are too numerous for this brief article. But, for those of you who are interested in this topic, take advantage of the good work being done by organizations, and the research currently being conducted. As with all topics related to the experience of having a disability, this is a multi-layered issue with many complex factors to take into account.