There are over 40 million elderly people in America. These 65-and-older Americans represent a wide spectrum of experiences and social-economic backgrounds that can’t be neatly boiled down to one demographic. Yet, despite this diversity of life experiences, most of them will face the same problem: incontinence.
For loved ones and caretakers, dealing with the problems related to elderly incontinence can be difficult, both financially and practically. This condition, though, raises many other issues beyond the obvious hygiene concerns. For one, incontinence can be a deeply embarrassing and stressful problem, one that can strain relationships and lead to isolation.
If someone you love and care for is dealing with incontinence, we have advice for how you can most effectively help.
The problem of incontinence
It has been determined that by 2030, the elderly will make up 20% of the nation’s population. It’s no great revelation to state that, in general, the older population experiences considerably more health issues than younger generations. There are numerous medical conditions and illnesses that are directly related to aging.
Incontinence, which can occur to anyone but is most commonly seen in the elderly, is the result of misfiring nerves or muscles that fail to contract and relax as needed. The bladder and the bowels have muscles that help move and control the body’s waste. If your body is functioning properly, those muscles tighten and relax as needed to release urine or feces at the desired time.
For people who suffer from incontinence, though, those muscles relax involuntarily or won’t relax at all, resulting in an untimely and, often, embarrassing discharge. Any kind of bodily waste problem can be worrisome, though urinary incontinence is a far more common issue than bowel incontinence.
There are numerous causes of urinary incontinence that include nerve damage as a result of diabetes or multiple sclerosis, arthritis, enlarged or damaged prostates (in men), and the shifting of pelvic organs (in woman), known as pelvic organ prolapse. Whatever the underlying causes of incontinence, it can result in hygiene problems and considerable emotional distress.
Indications of incontinence
If you are caring for an elderly loved one or patient, the signs of incontinence may be readily apparent. On the other hand, as incontinence can be extremely embarrassing for the sufferer, they may attempt to hide the problem from you (or even deny it to themselves). If you suspect you or a loved one is suffering from incontinence, you should immediately visit a doctor.
The doctor will take blood and urine tests and will have the patient urinate or provide a bowel movement. For the person dealing with incontinence, a doctor may ask them to keep a journal to record all bathroom visits and related incontinence issues. This will help everyone involved have a better concept of the severity and regularity of the issue.
Treatments for incontinence
There are a variety of treatment options for incontinence. Depending on whether the issue is urinary or bowel incontinence, the patient can be given medicines for diarrhea or to provide better control of the muscles. Most medicines will be over the counter, but others may require a prescription.
In addition to medicine, a doctor will probably make numerous lifestyle suggestions, including a change of diet and a new exercise regimen. Keeping a regular bathroom schedule will also help the patient develop better control and understanding of the issue. In more extreme cases, surgery or electrical nerve stimulation may be necessary.
More than a medical problem
While medicine and a change in lifestyle will help relieve the physical symptoms of someone who is struggling with incontinence, the condition can take a toll in many other ways. The emotional distress that can be caused by incontinence can manifest as embarrassment, anger, resentment, or depression. Unprepared caregivers can also find their emotional and mental welfare tested.
Counteracting these problems involves a mixture of education and preparation. Understanding the severity of the problem and gathering the right resources can make the struggle a little bit more manageable for everyone involved.
How to be a prepared caregiver
As a caregiver to someone suffering from incontinence, the first problem you have to confront is the uncertainty. If the person is still active and going out into the world as usual, you need to have the necessary supplies on hand at all times. This includes extra adult diapers or incontinence pads, sanitary wipes, and whatever else might be needed. Hygiene-related illnesses can occur if a mishap isn’t dealt with promptly, so never leave home without the tools necessary to clean up the problem.
If incontinence is severe enough, clothing will need to be a major consideration. Is the person’s clothing functional and simple enough to be easily taken off if needed? Do you have a change of clothes available if there is a bad problem? For some sufferers of incontinence, sartorial choices will have to prioritize function over fashion.
As a caregiver, your role will be equal parts medical assistant and monitor. If the doctor puts the patient on a specific diet or requires daily tracking of their bathroom visits, ensuring the rules are followed will fall on you just as much as them. It can be a full-time job.
Being an emotional support
The hours and effort it will require to care for someone with incontinence, especially if they are a loved one, will wear on both of you. This toll will manifest in arguments and emotional outbursts. At times, you will need to have superhuman patience.
The key to being an effective caregiver is empathy. Understand that the person is probably feeling ashamed, frustrated, and angry. It can be incredibly depressing to not feel like you have control of your own body. Be considerate without being condescending, and be patient without making it seem like it’s a job. You’re both adults dealing with a fact of life. Facing the problem practically, like you would any other medical condition, is the key to reducing embarrassment for both parties.
Also, remember to take time for your own emotional and physical recuperation. It will be incredibly trying to care for someone with incontinence, so don’t try to do everything on your own and don’t be too prideful to ask for help or take time off for yourself.
Incontinence can be a stressful problem, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating. Learn to understand the problem and its potential ramifications. Then you and your loved ones can overcome them together.