Months of reduced physical activity and isolation due to COVID-19 lockdowns are taking their toll on seniors’ flexibility, strength and endurance as well as their emotional and social wellbeing.
As social distancing measures are likely to continue into the future, the emphasis moving forward should be on infection control and on information, encouragement and support to increase physical as well as mental fitness while at home.
Although “average life expectancy” is a commonly used term, “healthy life expectancy” is a far more valuable metric. It describes the amount of time one can live life without disability, frailty and dementia. Growing evidence suggests that it is possible to increase healthy life expectancy by increasing physical, social and mental activity, delaying or preventing the need for care and dependency on others.
For example, members or volunteers in community programs such as the Bruce Trail Conservancy along the Niagara escarpment in Ontario can be confident that they are both helping with the well-being of others and engaging in activities that will reduce the risk of dementia, disability and frailty for themselves.
However, physical activities may not be possible for those who are housebound for part or all of the year. One option is to use Virtual Reality (VR) to walk through nature trails from the comfort of their home and, of particular importance in Canada, walk daily regardless of the weather conditions outside.
VR mimics real world through headsets that generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations to mimic the user’s physical experience in a virtual environment. A person using virtual reality equipment can walk around the house and look at the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with its items or features. VR can also be created through specially designed rooms with multiple large screens displaying the artificial environment.
Using a measurement called Useful Field of Vision (UFOV), VR can improve the speed with which a person can see and react to a potential threat such as a car appearing at speed from a side street. These improvements can reduce car-crash risk, thereby increasing independence of older adults. The increase in reaction speed is so great that some insurers in the U.S. are asking their clients of a certain age to undertake this form of training.
Equally important to physical fitness is maintaining social activity in older age. Seniors can stay socially active through volunteer work, employment or starting a new business. Older adults can also engage in a variety of activities from the comfort of their homes including gathering data for research projects such as those organised by Zooniverse. Although the priority for housebound older adults is to get them out of the house as often as possible, the Internet offers opportunities to supplement face-to-face contact through technologies such as the Amazon Alexa Skill software, Zoom video calling, and VR software.
Some ideas for how to stay engaged in the community using technology include:
- Set up a VR group to raise money for a good cause or to compete with other groups who are housebound. Be in a group with a purpose.
- Join an online book club listening to Fifteen Dogs (Giller Prize-winning novel by Canadian André Alexis) on Audible or a discussion group on writing.
- Do an augmented reality tour of the Royal Ontario Museum while standing, using a treadmill to walk and climb stairs.
- Use your treadmill and a virtual walk app to explore famous trails around the world.
- Open the Life Expectancy Calculator in the Project Big Life website to find out how each of your health behaviours impacts your estimated life expectancy.
- Join an online concert party in the evening for music and a discussion.
Older Canadians are well equipped to take part in virtual activities. In July this year, a survey by Age-Well found that 58 per cent of Canadians aged 65+ and 78 per cent aged 50-64 own smartphones and 86 per cent of Canadians aged 65+ and 94 per cent of Canadians aged 50+ report being online daily.
If the technology seems intimidating, Cyber Seniors (844-217-3057) and enTECH Computer Club (266-336-9684) are two examples of free programs that offer students as technology mentors for older adults.
These programs match tech-savvy students with older adults looking for help and is a win-win for both parties. The students gain practical experience while earning volunteer hours and developing job skills that enhance future employment opportunities and older adults gain valuable skills to help keep them connected to the community and enhance their at-home physical and social activity levels.