The population of old people is growing faster in many societies than any other population. World Health Organisation (WHO) defines an elderly person as the one aged 60 years and above.
Others consider a person old if at the age of 50 0r 60 and are unable to support themselves.
It is estimated that by 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than five years and that in 2050, 80 percent of older people will be living in low and middle-income countries.
The major contributing factor to an increase in the population of the elderly has been an increased life expectancy due to improved life styles of people from different socio-economic levels.
It is, therefore, important to note that today’s youth and adults will be among the elderly population in future; hence, the need to prepare for that stage of life.
In Malawi, the elderly are not given a priority as one of the special groups and most of the times they get different forms of abuse; yet, perpetrators are left free in some cases.
It is against this background that I have decided to write this article so that people understand the biology of old age, common problems affecting the elderly and what we can do to improve the quality of their lives.
The biology of old age: As a human body ages, there are changes in the way all organ systems function. These changes place an older adult at increased risk to illness and create a disadvantage in recovering from illness.
These changes are common to everyone. However, they progress at different rates in each individual. They also progress at different rates in each organ system in the same person.
Skin: There is loss of skin tone, elasticity and skin develops wrinkles. These put the elderly at greater risk of injury, infection, pressure, bed sores, bruises and prolonged healing.
Bones: The bones become brittle and joints become stiff. These make the elderly susceptible to fractures, tears, dislocation and falls.
Eyes: There is decreased vision. As such, they have difficulty reading and are at risk of falls as they are not able to see properly.
Ears: They lose hearing sense which impairs their ability to understand surrounding circumstances and have difficulty communicating. To communicate with the elderly, one has to speak slowly and loud for them to understand.
The heart and blood vessels: The heart muscles become stiff and thick. This makes the elderly at risk of cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure.
Lungs and chest: They have weak respiratory muscle and stiff chest wall, which increase their risk of respiratory problems such as pneumonia and respiratory failure.
Muscles: They have decreased muscle mass, strength; and increased stiffness of tendons and ligaments. These bring loss of independence, difficulty rising from the floor and difficulty regaining independence after an injury.
Renal:There is decreased blood flow to the kidneys. This causes the kidneys to filter blood slowly putting them at risk of renal failure. The bladder muscle weakens, putting them at risk of urine incontinence (inability to hold urine) and other urinary tract infections.
Gastrointestinal: There is decrease in absorption, decreased motility, delayed stomach emptying, decreased acid secretion and mucous production and weakened intestinal wall. These lead to nutritional deficits, especially protein; risk for aspiration (stomach contents move to lungs and this causes pneumonia), constipation, obstruction and risk for gastro intestinal bleeding.
To be continued next week.
The author is a lecturer, Kamuzu College of Nursing. Feedback at email@example.com