It could be a surprising scene. An adult child visits his mom to see that the caregiver Mom has been raving about is just five or ten years younger than his mother. Although this can be a surprise for adult children taking care of elderly parents, it’s not a surprise for their parents. In fact, it’s frequently a preference! As th
In 2014, when I flew out to visit old family friends “Ginny and Lars,” I was sad to see Ginny meeting me at the airport in a scooter. Since her diagnosis with a rare auto-immune disorder, she had become reliant on a scooter when walking moderate distances. During my visit with them, walking was always a concern, and if she didn’t use the scooter, she usually needed crutches whenever we left the house.
In the year between 2014 and my 2015 visit, Ginny had written to me about undergoing physical therapy. I was not prepared for what I saw when I arrived at the airport this second time. Not only did she greet me without the scooter at the airport, she didn’t even have her crutches!
I had heard that physical therapy could be a powerful tool to keep seniors safe and active, preventing dangerous (or deadly) falls and maintaining or increasing mobility. It wasn’t until I saw how it helped Ginny that I fully understood how powerful it is.
To learn more about the basics of physical therapy and its ability to help seniors like Ginny, I reached out to Nicole Rennie of respected in-home physical therapy provider Tandem Strength & Balance.
–Jim Miles, MBA
What is physical therapy?
Geriatric physical therapy is treatment to improve balance, walking, mobility, strength, flexibility, and coordination. As physical therapists, we are trained to evaluate people for problems related to these areas and then to pinpoint specific muscles and joints in the body that need treatment in order to address those problems. In short, physical therapists are really good investigators. I can look at a senior and tell what’s going on, then put my hands on them and test muscles to determine a course of treatment.
When should a senior seek physical therapy?
If your elderly parents aren’t ambulating as well today as they were six months ago, it’s a sign they could benefit from physical therapy. Specific (and common) instances you would want to call a physical therapist include if your elderly parents:
- are having a difficult time getting in and out of the car.
- are having a difficult time getting on and off the toilet.
- are having a difficult time getting in and out of chairs.
- are shuffling their feet when they walk.
- are having trouble turning when they walk.
- are having balance issues.
- are at risk for falling or have had falls.
- are furniture-walking.
- are having pain, such as in their muscles or joints.
People don’t know how to address physical issues they are having, so they sometimes resort to walking in an effort to maintain mobility and strength. Walking, however, doesn’t keep a senior walking. It provides benefits to cardiovascular and mental health, but it doesn’t strengthen muscles to keep you walking and improve balance.
A critical component of physical therapy is maintaining physical improvements by continuing with specific exercises. If people stop their physical therapy exercises, they start to lose everything they’ve gained. People get better, but they need to continue to do exercises for the rest of their lives. Without exercises, in just 3-5 days, people begin to lose strength. It happens that quickly.
How do I pay for physical therapy?
There are a number of different ways that people can pay for physical therapy. Of course, people can pay privately. Some insurances will cover all or a portion of physical therapy for sixty days. Private insurance, Medicare, and medical assistance will also cover physical therapy, though in differing amounts.
Minnesota is a direct access state, which means that laws allow for people to seek care from a physical therapist without a referral from a doctor. It also allows for people to seek treatment for prevention, wellness, education, or exercise. If you are interested in physical therapy for an aging parent, just call a physical therapy provider to see if your parents qualify with their insurance.
When insurance is covering physical therapy, it’s important to make functional progress with every physical therapy visit. This might mean that the patient can walk farther or needs less help getting out of a chair. Just saying that you feel better doesn’t qualify a person for physical therapy, so it’s important to follow through with exercises that the physical therapist gives in order to see improvements.
How do I find a physical therapist?
The American Physical Therapy website includes a search page that helps people find physical therapists with specialized expertise, such as in geriatric care or cardiovascular and pulmonary care. If your elderly parent has chronic illnesses outside of the typical ails of aging, it’s important to ask questions of potential therapists to find out if they are knowledgeable about working with people with those limitations.
If your elderly parent doesn’t like the physical therapist they have, it’s critical to ask for a new one. It’s so important to have someone they can trust. A good physical therapist won’t take it personally, and they shouldn’t. It’s about the patient. Whatever they do, they shouldn’t just stop therapy!
Also, don’t be afraid to ask therapists why they are doing certain exercises. There should be reasons why they are doing something, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the patient understands why they are doing it, they are willing to put in more effort.
Nicole Rennie, PT, GCS
CEO, Tandem Strength & Balance
April 28, 2016
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