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The Benefits Of Physical Therapy For Seniors

You may be wondering how to convince a senior to go to physical therapy. After all, they may be hesitant to commit to a long-term treatment plan, or they may simply not see the need for it. However, there are several good reasons to encourage the elderly to give physical therapy a try.

Physical therapy can be very helpful for seniors in the following ways:

  • Maintains their independence
  • Could lessen incontinence
  • Minimizes injury risks
  • Reduces pain
  • Could decrease reliance on medication
  • Slashes one’s risk of falls
  • Helps with dizziness
  • Might improve bone health

Senior citizens can reap a variety of benefits from sessions with a physical therapist, including improved balance and muscle strength. The key is to find the right one who will work closely alongside your parent or loved one in order provide personalized care that meets their specific needs.

In today’s article, we’ll talk further about the above perks of physical therapy for older adults. If you’re interested in getting your senior parent or loved one started with physical therapy, we’ll also discuss how often they should attend and how long it takes to see results.

Let’s get started! 

What Is Geriatric Physical Therapy?

Geriatric physical therapy is a type of therapy that is specifically designed for older adults.

As we age, our bodies change in many ways. We may lose muscle mass and bone density, and we may experience a decline in our overall strength and balance. These changes can make everyday activities like walking or getting out of a chair much more difficult.

Geriatric physical therapists work with older adults to help them regain or maintain their mobility and independence. They design individualized treatment plans that may include exercises to improve strength, balance, and flexibility.

In addition, they can provide guidance on the use of assistive devices such as canes or walkers.

Keep in mind that not all physical therapists are trained in geriatric physical therapy. In fact, most physical therapists specialize in a particular area of physical therapy, such as sports medicine or pediatrics.

However, there are a growing number of physical therapists who are specializing in geriatric physical therapy. These therapists have received additional training in how to work with the elderly, which means they are better equipped to handle the unique needs of this population.

If you are interested in finding a PT who is specifically trained in geriatric physical therapy, you can search for one in your area using the American Physical Therapy Association’s Find a PT tool. Just enter your location and choose “Geriatrics” from the list of specialties.

How Does Physical Therapy Help The Elderly?

Now, let’s talk further about the above-mentioned benefits of physical therapy, which can help a senior at any age and life stage. 

Maintains Their Independence

No senior wants to lose their independence, but depending on their health issues, they might not have much of a choice. 

Physical therapy can help improve a senior’s overall health, reducing their pain and improving their balance and steadiness. It also can build their strength, allowing them to complete everyday tasks more easily.

In addition, the therapists can provide ideas for activity modifications for elderly patients who have trouble performing daily activities, like getting dressed, showering or toileting.

If you have been considering a nursing home or assisted living for your senior parent or loved one, you might try physical therapy first it may buy them more time to enjoy their independence.  

Could Lessen Incontinence 

Urinary incontinence causes a senior to lose control of their bladder. It’s terribly embarrassing for sufferers, as it can lead to unfortunate accidents.

Physical therapists with specialized incontinence training can help a senior to focus on the pelvic floor muscles specifically, coordinating, relaxing, and contracting them to reduce that feeling of always having to go. 

As a result, the senior could go about their day with fewer incontinence accidents, which might give them a renewed sense of confidence and restore their self-esteem. 

Minimizes Injury Risks

What is it that makes a senior more injury-prone? Is it their brittle bones? The lack of muscle flexibility and strength? Well, actually, it’s actually a combination of both!

This is because our bones and muscles become weaker as we age, making elderly people more vulnerable to falls and other accidents.

Physical therapy can help to minimize the risk of injury by improving strength, flexibility, and balance.

Regular physical therapy sessions help to keep a senior’s muscles strong and flexible, which can reduce their risk of falls. In addition, strength training can help to improve their balance, making it less likely that they will fall in the first place.

And if they do fall, the stronger muscles and improved balance that they’ve developed through physical therapy can help to minimize the extent of their injuries.

Reduces Pain (And Could Decrease Reliance On Medication)

As we go through the aging process, it’s natural for our bodies to slow down. We don’t have the same energy levels we did when we were younger, and we may start to experience aches and pains in our joints.

This can make everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, and even getting out of bed difficult to do. That’s where physical therapy comes in.

Physical therapists help seniors maintain their independence by working with them to improve their strength, flexibility, and balance.

Through exercises and stretching, physical therapy can help reduce pain and stiffness, increase range of motion, and improve coordination. In addition, physical therapists can provide guidance on how to safely perform activities of daily living.

Physical therapy can also help to relieve chronic pain that can be caused by many medical conditions your senior parent or loved one might be facing (and aids in pain management).

These include cancer pain, pain from neurological conditions (such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and/or Parkinson’s disease), and the symptoms of arthritis. 

In some instances, a senior might notice such an improvement in their day-to-day pain levels that they can cut back on their medication dosage and/or frequency and feel a little freer in their lives.  

Their quality of life will also increase as they can focus on other things besides the pain. 

Helps With Dizziness

As we age, our balance and vestibular system, which helps us maintain equilibrium, can deteriorate. This can cause dizziness and problems with coordination. Physical therapy can help improve seniors’ balance and vestibular function, which in turn can help lessen dizziness and help reduce the risk of a fall.

A vestibular physical therapist is trained in assisting seniors with dizziness and balance issues caused by vertigo or other conditions. Exercises that focus on balance and coordination can help to retrain the body and improve function.

In addition, physical therapy can help to address any underlying issues that may be contributing to the dizziness, such as poor vision or arthritis.

As the therapist works with you to improve your balance and coordination, they will also work to make sure you’re getting the right amount of sensory input. In some cases, they may also recommend exercises to help strengthen the muscles in your neck.

As a result, physical therapy sessions can be an effective way to help seniors manage their dizziness.

Might Improve Bone Health

You may not realize it, but your bones are always changing. Old bones are broken down and removed from your body, and new bone tissue is created to replace them. This process is known as bone turnover, and it helps to keep your bones strong and healthy.

However, bone turnover can sometimes become imbalanced, leading to problems like osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is a progressive bone disease which reduces bone mass and density. It puts seniors at a higher risk of falls and a significant risk of fractures (I have a friend with osteoporosis who just broke two toes simply by accidentally twisting her foot when she stood up from the couch).

Physical therapy can help to improve bone health by stimulating the cells that create new bone tissue.

Does Physical Therapy Help With Falling?

Your senior parent or loved one recently had a bad fall. They were away from their phone and couldn’t contact anyone for hours, so they sustained some rather serious injuries.

What’s worse is that this isn’t even your senior’s first fall this year. You’re very concerned that if it’s happened twice recently that it will happen again.

Indeed, you should be concerned!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC, a history of falling means the person has an increased risk of falling again.

Also, the CDC, in a separate link, notes that falls contribute the most to causing traumatic brain injuries. One in five falls can cause head injuries or a broken bone.Hip fractures are caused by falls 95 percent of the time, says the CDC.

These injuries are dangerous for seniors, not to mention expensive, so the more fall injuries you can prevent, the better!

Fortunately, physical therapy can help. It is one of the best ways for older people who have been living a more sedentary lifestyle to regain some physical strength.

You see, it’s not only one’s past with falling that makes them more prone to future injuries and falls. Balance issues and muscle weakness can also contribute to a senior’s fall risk.  

Once a senior begins participating in physical therapy, they’ll have stronger muscles and better balance, which should lessen their risk of falling.

Also, as we mentioned in the prior section, if your senior is suffering from vertigo or another form of dizziness, this should be addressed by a physical therapist, as well. Feeling dizzy can certainly make a person more likely to fall, no matter their age!

How Many Times A Week Should You Do Physical Therapy?

Hopefully, after discussing the benefits of physical therapy with your senior parent or loved one, they’ve agreed that it could be helpful for them. 

Now the question becomes, how many times per week is physical therapy recommended for seniors?

Physical therapy visits will usually happen two or three times per week over a four to six week period (the sessions may continue beyond this time frame, however, depending on the senior’s needs or health challenges). 

At the start of the program, a physical therapist might suggest up to three sessions a week and then reduce them down to no more than two sessions a week. 

Again, this will vary depending on the nature of your senior parent or loved one’s problems as well as the physical therapist.

Another question you’ll naturally have as you begin researching physical therapy options for the elderly is whether the physical therapist comes to your senior or should your senior travel to see them?

Both options have their advantages and disadvantages.

Receiving physical therapy at a medical center office gives the physical therapist the full range of tools and equipment to work with. This cannot be said for at-home treatments.

However, it’s not always easy or feasible for a senior to travel to physical therapy appointments, especially several times per week.

At-home treatments are likely more convenient for a senior, and you might save money on physical therapy as well. That said, your options for physical therapists are more limited.

Fortunately, a 2019 study published by JAMA Network that compared home care and in-office physical therapy reports that “Both groups improved by clinically meaningful amounts with additional therapy.”

That suggests that it’s more about the quality and duration of therapy than where a senior receives it. 

How Long Does It Take Physical Therapy To Work?

Your senior parent or loved one has started physical therapy. So far, they’re complaining to you about how it doesn’t work. 

You want to tell them to be patient, but you’re not really sure how long it will be before the physical therapy makes a noticeable difference either. 

As with most things, it’s not an overnight process. It can take upwards of eight weeks for a physical therapy program to be most effective. 

Some patients notice results in only six weeks, but for the elderly, we’d say to plan for the full eight weeks rather than the six.

All along, your senior’s physical therapist should regularly check in with them and ask how their strength, function, and motion of the affected area(s) are improving with time. They should also take measurements of the senior’s range of motion at the initial diagnostic session when a PT program begins, and then periodically measure again to chart the person’s progress.

If the physical therapist isn’t pleased with a senior’s progress, they may recommend changing up the exercise regimen or possibly increasing the number of sessions per week. The physical therapist should discuss these changes with you before implementing them. 

Final Thoughts

As you can see, physical therapy for seniors can play a vital role in helping seniors stay healthy and independent.

You don’t necessarily have to wait for your senior parent or loved one to experience debilitating pain for them to benefit from physical therapy either.

As a preventative treatment, physical therapy might be able to ward off pain and help your senior manage it better so they can stay independent. Even if your senior has a lot of pain, physical therapy could still be the key to less discomfort and a better quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can the elderly improve their balance?

A therapist can help an older adult develop a tailored program that includes exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and balance. For example, standing on one leg or walking heel-to-toe are great exercises for improving balance. Read more about the core exercises our physical therapist recommends.

Why do seniors walk bent over?

There are many reasons why seniors walk bent over. It could be due to poor posture, osteoporosis, or simply because they have weaker muscles and bones. However, a physical therapist can develop an exercise program to help seniors improve their posture and prevent further injury.

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