Senior Fights Frailty with Support, Attitude and Grit

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At age 85, Ruth Sharp-Doyle of Omaha struggles with mobility problems caused by a bad back and knees, and aggravated by arthritis. "I just can't do much anymore," she notes. But the evidence would indicate otherwise. Sharp-Doyle has tapped into all the tools that researchers say she needs to fight the effects of aging.

Staying mentally and physically active can include tasks as simple as cooking a favorite recipe.

Older adults shouldn't just accept frailty as an inevitable condition of aging.

At age 85, Ruth Sharp-Doyle of Omaha struggles with mobility problems caused by a bad back and knees, and aggravated by arthritis. "I just can't do much anymore," she notes.

The evidence would indicate otherwise.

On any given week it's difficult to find Sharp-Doyle even at home. She may be at the library, the hairdresser or engaged in one of her preferred pastimes - shopping. If she is home, the retired teacher and school principal might be watching her favorite teams - the Atlanta Braves or the Nebraska Cornhuskers - with former colleagues, or baking her mother-in-law's famous shortbread recipe or reading a book. (She's been known to read six books in five days.)

Sharp-Doyle has tapped into all the tools that researchers say she needs to fight the effects of aging: a little assistance, a positive attitude and sheer grit. "Some days I don't feel so good, but I push through," she explained. "Tylenol® makes it work. And I must have a positive attitude," she added. "If you don't, what's the alternative? You have to enjoy what you have."

Sharp-Doyle is battling one of seniors' biggest enemies - frailty.    Medical professionals describe frailty as a syndrome of weakness, fatigue and decline in physical activity that may be triggered by hormonal or inflammatory changes or chronic disease states. For some, frailty results from a heart attack or stroke, while another senior might experience falls and weight loss.

Linda P. Fried, M.D., M.P.H., and scientists at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities found that frailty is the result of a systems failure in older adults, rather than a specific problem, disease or even chronological age. Data from women ages 70-79 led researchers to discover that half of those frail had three or more systems at abnormal levels, compared with 25 percent of the pre-frail and 16 percent of the non-frail population. Among the physiological factors that were assessed included anemia, inflammation and fine motor skills.

Most researchers also agree that older adults shouldn't just accept frailty as an inevitable condition of aging. Stephanie Studenski, M.D., M.P.H., one of the nation's foremost authorities and researchers of mobility, balance disorders and falls in older adults, and director of clinical research for the University of Pittsburgh Institute on Aging, said that frailty can be both prevented and reversed by activity.

"One of the core ideas in aging is that there are underlying problems in the body's self-correcting mechanism. For example, when a young person is bleeding, the body self-corrects by increasing the heart rate. But older adults, because of medication or health problems, may have lost the ability to self-correct by being able to increase their heart rate. Through activity, though, seniors can build both physical and mental reserves that can help their bodies better tolerate problems that come with aging."

In reality, though, seniors often need help to stay on course, either from a family member or professional caregiver. With her family living elsewhere, Sharp-Doyle employs the services of Home Instead Senior Care. Two Home Instead CAREGivers alternate schedules to keep her doing what she loves to do.

"She thinks she's not active, but she is very active," said one of her CAREGivers, Gloria Ramsey. "There are things she would tell me she couldn't do anymore. We have a saying that there isn't anything we can't do. Even the shortbread we made today she didn't think she could do because she couldn't mix anymore. I didn't know if it would turn out, but it did."

Sharp-Doyle said it would be difficult for her to remain in assisted living without the help of her CAREGivers. "We go a lot of places. We don't just sit around."

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Dan Wieberg
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