Seven steps to avoid going to a nursing home

Do you swear you will NEVER go into a nursing home? You and just about everyone else!  It’s true that nobody ever really wants to go into a nursing home – technically called ‘residential aged care’. Yet, on average about 5 per cent of people aged 65 and over, do. Most of them are 85 or older.

For some of us, there may be circumstances beyond our control which can leave us with no alternative to residential aged care. But by and large, many more of us can completely avoid or substantially delay the need for this form of very high care.

What’s the secret? No secret, really – here are seven steps to give you your best chance:

1. Eat the ‘right’ healthy diet

Eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise. OK, this is not rocket science. It’s important for every age but it is even more important as you grow older. Beyond your 60s, dietary advice changes. For a start, protein becomes much more important because of its role in maintaining body muscle, maintaining the immune system, supporting wound healing, controlling diabetes and providing brain fuel. Check out Tasmanian nutrition guru Ngaire Hobbins’ new book, Brain Body Food – the ultimate guide to thriving into later age and reducing dementia risk.

2. Keep moving!

We also know that exercise is vital to good health. In older people it can improve cognition, physical strength, and quality of life but it is muscle maintenance that is critical. (Look up the word, ‘sarcopenia’). Poor or decreased muscle strength is a significant risk factor for falls and fractures; and falls are the single biggest reason that people over 65 get admitted to hospital. Which is why falls, along with cognitive impairment and incontinence, are a major reason for admission to residential aged care.

To stay healthy in every sense – but especially to minimise muscle loss, maintain bone strength and avoid falls – keep yourself moving. And ensure you get plenty of vitamin D – from the sun, or by taking a supplement. Look out for one of the many specially designed and affordable strength building programs for older people.

3. Check your home environment

If you’re going to stay home you’re going to need to be ‘able’ to stay home. If home is on multiple levels with lots of stairs; if it requires a car to get to the nearest shop; or if it has features that are safety risks (think slippery flooring, a sloping block, high cupboards, bad lighting etc), staying home might be a liability or even impossible. Think ahead. Imagine, for example, you have impaired vision, you need a wheelchair, or you’re unable to drive. Don’t let your home become your prison. Can it be adapted? Should you consider moving while you can? When people wait until ‘something happens’, it’s almost always too late.

4. Change your attitude to ageing and older people

Research has shown that older people with more positive self-perceptions of ageing, live 7.5 years longer, and in better health, than those with less positive self-perceptions of ageing. And this is irrespective of their age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and general health. They are also less likely to develop dementia; will recover better from experiencing disability; and have better mental health.

Not convinced? Research also shows that our negative expectations about getting older are largely misguided. Have you heard about the ‘u-curve of happiness’? All things being equal, our later years are the happiest years since childhood. Moreover, research commissioned by the aged care Royal Commission in 2020 with over 10,500 participants found the large majority of older Australians consider themselves to be healthy, physically able to do what they like, and making choices to stay that way. “Younger people tend to have unnecessarily gloomy expectations about later life,” it reports.

5. Stay connected

In recent years you may have heard about a ‘loneliness epidemic’, positioning loneliness as a serious public health issue. That’s because the evidence is clear that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase your risk for premature death – as much or more than obesity, smoking (less than 15 cigarettes a day) and air pollution. On the other hand, evidence shows that having good social connections is protective – it decreases your risk of premature death by 50 per cent. Staying healthy and well in your later decades means trying to stay active and connected with friends, family, neighbours and others in your community.

6. Don’t deny or ignore signs that you might need a hand

You know how if the soles of your favourite shoes are wearing out and you take them to the shoe repairer, they can be re-soled and you’ll get to keep wearing them?  Well, it’s kind of the same for people. If we address health problems and other challenges when they first arise, we have our best chance at either fixing them or finding a good work-around.

Don’t let small challenges become big problems. Taking timely action to deal with your home environment, getting the right health care and accepting assistance if you need it, can literally mean the difference between continuing to do well at home or having a crisis that severely limits your future choices.

7. Take advantage of aged care

Yep, you read that correctly. The aged care system is there to provide a spectrum of services and should be seen, first and foremost, as a way of getting timely support and assistance to keep you independent and well at home. Set goals, make plans, take charge. The right home-based aged care services can keep you doing what you love most – or get you back to it, if that’s what you need. Aged care does NOT equal nursing homes. Armed with a bit of knowledge, the right attitude, and some family or friends in your corner, you can make it work for you on your own terms.

Check out this helpful guide to home-based care and how by self-managing and using Mable, you can stay independent and in control.