Overview of Aging

No matter where a nurse practices her profession, there will always be a time in her career where she needs to care for older adults. Geriatric or gerontological nursing is one of the fields of nursing that deals with proper care and hospitalization of aged or geriatric patients. This specialized field is very intricate as it involves understanding the aging process and the tremendous changes that every individual has to face. Life expectancy is steadily increasing. Thus, nurses are expected to care for a relatively large number of the elderly in the coming decades. A nurse’s role in this specialized field is critical in promoting active aging and she should be able to care for various diseases and conditions characteristic of the aged in the process.

How Geriatric Nursing Started

The development of gerontological nursing came through the combined efforts of the American Journal of Nursing, John A. Hartford Foundation Institute for Geriatric Nursing and the American Nurses Association. However, it was the American Nursing Association (ANA) that formed a specialized group for geriatric nurses in the 1960s and recognized it over the next three decades. Programs were established to solidify the geriatric nursing specialization and nurses were given substantial educational opportunities through the development of Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Centers (GRECCs), allowing them to provide quality care for older veterans. Later, certificate programs, baccalaureate degrees, and master’s degrees were created to allow applicants to become geriatric nurses in their respective states.

Caring for the aged is not a new concept in nursing; Florence Nightingale pioneered this specialized field. She was renowned as the first geriatric nurse because of her nurse superintendent position in an English institution, where she cared for helpers and maids of wealthy women. Nowadays, gerontological care is recognized by society through the collaboration of several organizations and hardworking individuals in the field of nursing. In time, geriatric nurses trained for the job and an evidence-based geriatric nursing practice was developed, which allowed the production of books, journals, websites and even organizations dedicated to caring for older adults.

Attitudes Towards Aging

The way we care for aged individuals is influenced by our experiences with family, friends, neighborhood, school and even work. Aging is a normal process, and it is common to see older people around in our community. However, derogatory attitudes toward older adults often exist because of negative past experiences. Some of us may not have solid beliefs about older adults, but separating myth from reality is a good way of appreciating older adults and caring for them in the correct manner.

Demographics of Aging

In the latest census by the US Census Bureau, a whopping 39.6 million older adults reside in America, which makes up 12.9% of the population of the country. By 2035, it is expected that 1 out of 5 individuals will be 65 years or older. These seniors will be different from those of past decades. They will enjoy better health, longer lives, and more active lifestyles because of technology and new advancements in medical care.

However, the increased life expectancy has also caused the creation of three elderly sub-populations, namely the young old (people aged 65 to 74), the old (people aged 74 to 84) and the oldest-old (people aged 85+). The new retirees will require medical and Social Security assistance to meet their needs. They will also need long-term care to maintain their health and well-being throughout the remainer of their lives.

Economics of Aging

As more and more people are born, a growing number are also becoming elderly. The growing population of the elderly is due to declining fertility rates and increased longevity. According to the Centers older Disease Control and Prevention, the life expectancy of a newborn today is nearly 78 years, which is more than twice as long as those born a thousand years ago. In 1930, people were expected to live for 59.7 years; and in 1960, life expectancy increased to 69.7 years. This dramatic increase in life expectancy is not an accident. It is the result of public health initiatives, infectious disease control and new surgical and rehabilitation techniques. In fact, there is a significant decrease in mortality rates, accounted for in 2007, which showed a declining percentage of deaths from the 15 leading diseases like stroke, diabetes, accidents, homicide, influenza, pneumonia and many others. Also, medical breakthroughs are solving our problems with birth, early infancy disorders as well as contagious diseases, thereby improving longevity and allowing people to live longer than in past decades.

Housing Arrangements

Housing arrangements are one of the many things we have to consider when we get older. Senior individuals have specific needs, and most have fragile bones and lifestyle diseases that need long-term care. They may require specialized nursing services, but they also need better housing conditions. Nowadays, there are a lot of accommodation options for elderly individuals, including nursing homes, retirement communities and apartments designed for older people. Some of these options may be suitable for a particular person, while others are not. This is due to several considerations like physical and medical needs, home maintenance, social and emotional needs as well as financial concerns. Elderly individuals or family members with older people at home should always take into account their lifestyle, health and finances. Housing arrangements should not affect the old person’s overall health and well-being and ability to thrive and have a comfortable aging process. It should planned in a such way as to promote a better quality life, with less risk of injury and health issues.

Healthcare Provisions

The elderly population is vulnerable to a variety of health problems. Prevention and control requires a multifaceted approach with collaboration of the social welfare, health, legal and rural/urban development sectors. A geriatric healthcare program should contain a comprehensive policy at the start. Any healthcare provision be supported by a strong political will and social action to make the policies efficient and sustainable. Nevertheless, other measures like improving healthcare knowledge, health insurance and promotion of a healthy lifestyle are also the keys to better elderly care.

The provision of quality healthcare services to the elderly population imposes several challenges. It is important to address the factors that hinder these services to develop a better way of life for our seniors. Families with the elderly should take a significant role in ensuring that their needs are adequately met. Failure to address their healthcare needs early on can result in costly issues later. In fact, it can aggravate an existing condition that causes a major meltdown within the family.

Impact of Aging Members in the Family

Many of our older individuals experience a decline in their physical and cognitive functioning. This has made them lose the ability to live independently, forcing them to seek long-term care services from institutions like long-stay hospitals, nursing homes, residential care and assisted living facilities. Families with older people often carry the burden of caring for these individuals, accumulating significant costs when they do. In less developed countries where affordable long-term care facilities are not available, families with elderly adults withdraw from their employment or school commitments just to care for these family members and make ends meet. They may end up with significant debt due to their hospitalization, medication maintenance, and home care adjustment costs.

The impact of having an aging family member often varies on how well they handle the changes and demands of day- to-day living. Most families with a solid economic background and strong financial support from the government seek long-term nursing services to care for the elderly. Unfortunately, this may not apply to families with fewer resources and unemployed family members. The demands of an elderly individual are often unpredictable and changing. Thus, families should be prepared for this day to balance the situation and ensure the provision of a safe retirement for their loved ones.

Theories of Aging

There are several theories about the process of aging, yet they are mutually exclusive and often contradict one another. Nowadays, the biological theories of aging have two main categories: the programmed theory and the damage or error theory.

The programmed theory implies that aging has a biological timetable and is regulated by the changes in gene expression affecting the systems responsible for our repair, maintenance and defense responses. On the other hand, the damage or error theories emphasize the environmental impact that induces cumulative damage, instigating the aging process. These two theories are based on evolutionary concepts wherein aging is considered the result of an individual’s inability to combat the natural deterioration processes and is a result of a biological program that allows decay and death to attain a direct evolutionary benefit.

Some theories are believed to be related to aging itself. The disengagement theory refers to the inevitable process by which the relationships of a person and other members of society are severed, with some are altered in quality. This  is the first formal theory that attempts to explain the process of becoming an elderly, or growing older. In addition the psycho-social aging process is described through the activity theory, another kind of proposition that emphasizes the relevance of ongoing social activity. This theory suggests that an individual’s self-concept is related to the responsibility or role held by the person.

The neuroendocrine theory elaborates the wear and tear of our neuroendocrine system. This theory of aging is proposed by Professor Vladimir Dilman and Ward Dean MD, who emphasize the importance of hormones in our  systems. As we age, the secretion of these hormones declines and they become less sensitive. A very famous theory of aging was developed by Denham Harman, MD, called the free radical theory. This theory focuses on the free radical molecules that derive from an unhealthy lifestyle, drugs, smoking and eating habits. These free radicals cause aging and other health-related problems associated with this process.

Physiologic Changes in the Integumentary System

Skin changes are the most visible signs of aging. As we age, our skin becomes wrinkled and prone to injury. This is due to the fact that pigment-containing cells decrease, and connective tissues as well as the blood vessel function deteriorates. An elderly individual usually experiences a change in their skin’s elasticity and strength. The sebaceous glands will generate a lower production of oil and the dermis becomes fragile. As a result, most elderly men and women have problems with insulation or a reduced ability to maintain body temperature. The subcutaneous fat layer thins and it loses its protective layer. The skin is less able to feel touch, vibration, pressure, heat and cold.

Aging skin has a reduced ability to repair itself. Elderly individuals often experience a delayed wound healing, thereby making pressure ulcers and infections worse. Skin disorders among older people are often related to conditions like arteriosclerosis, liver disease, heart disease, nutritional deficiencies, diabetes, obesity, stress and allergies. These skin changes can be alleviated through adequate nutrition and proper hydration. Older people are prone to injuries and nutritional deficiencies. This is why they have to be mindful of what they eat and the lifestyle they choose.

Physiologic Changes in the Musculoskeletal System

Pysiologic changes in the musculoskeletal system of men and women usually start at the age of 30. The density of bones starts to diminish at this age, especially for women nearing the menopausal stage. As a result, bones are becoming fragile and are likely to break.

We often do not notice these musculoskeletal changes of our body as we grow older, but time and time again, the joints are affected by the changes in our connective tissue and cartilage. The cartilage becomes thinner and its components altered, making it less resilient and therefore susceptible to damage. Some people find their joints a bit different than they used to be, and experience a condition called osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis, joints become stiffer and the tendons brittle and rigid. Individuals with this condition often have a limited range of motion. They often cannot perform their daily routine because of the pain and inflammation experienced in the joints.

Furthermore, muscle mass also deteriorates in aging. The size of muscle fibers and the amount of muscle tissue gradually decreases throughout life. This will result in a loss of muscle strength which stresses the joints and predisposes them to be arthritic as well. Fortunately, muscle mass and muscle strength can be preserved through regular exercise. This will significantly delay the changes in our musculoskeletal system and allow us to maximize the functioning of our muscles.

Physiologic Changes in the Respiratory System

The effects of aging on the respiratory system are similar to other organs. Through time, the maximum function of our lungs will gradually decline. It will decrease its gas exchange, peak flow and vital capacity. Respiratory muscles will also weaken as well as their effectiveness in creating a barrier against bacteria, viruses, and other harmful organisms. However, the age-related changes in the respiratory system do not often lead to symptoms in healthy individuals. This will only reduce the ability to perform intense aerobic exercises like biking, running and mountain climbing. Thus, older people have limited capacity to perform certain activities.

Individuals who have existing medical problems such as heart disease and obesity may have a limited lung function as well. They are at a higher risk of viral and bacterial infections like pneumonia and lung cancer. Hence, older people often acquire diseases faster than young adults.

Physiologic Changes in the Cardiovascular System

Physiologic changes in the cardiovascular system typically occur as we age. The heart is a natural pacemaker that regulates the heartbeat, but through time, some of its pathways will develop fat deposits and fibrous tissue. This may result in a slower heart rate and a slight increase in its size, especially the left ventricle. Older people often experience an abnormal rhythm like atrial fibrillation and a heart murmur, caused by stiffness of the valves. Receptors in the cardiovascular system often monitor the blood pressure whenever a person performs certain activities and changes positions. But as we age, these receptors become less sensitive, which is why many older people experience orthostatic hypotension. The capillary walls of the heart will also thicken and the main aorta artery becomes stiffer, thicker and less flexible.

Normal aging can cause a reduction of total body water (TBW). Blood volume decreases and there is less fluid in the bloodstream. Red blood cells, which respond to stress and any kind of illness, are fewer in number while the white blood cells remain at the same levels, though their ability to ward off bacteria and other sorts of infection.

Physiologic Changes in the Hematopoietic and Lymphatic System

The main role of the hematopoietic and lymphatic system is to protect the body against infection and illness. With advancing age, this system becomes less effective. The T and B cells, the primary cells involved in attacking specific invaders, become less responsive. The T cells are responsible for cellular immunity, and they often respond to infection and invasion of a pathogen. The B cells, on the other hand, are responsible for producing antibodies. However, they become less responsive over time, making the body more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections.

Vaccinations for viruses are strongly recommended for older people because their lymphatic system is not working as well as when they were younger. Moreover, the increased occurrence of cancer in older individuals is due to the declining ability of the lymphatic system to eliminate tumor cells efficiently. This is also caused by nutritional deficiency, common in older adults.

Physiologic Changes in Gastrointestinal System

Aging is often a factor in different gastrointestinal disorders. With age, the strength of the esophageal contractions, as well as the tension of the upper esophageal sphincter, will decrease; but this does not affect or impair the movement of food. A peptic ulcer is common in older people because of the decreasing capacity of the stomach lining to resist any damage, particularly in those using aspirin and NSAID’s as maintenance. Aging can even affect the ability of the stomach to accommodate more food because of its decreasing elasticity and capacity to empty food into the small intestines. This is why most older adults have a decreased appetite for food.

Other parts of the gastrointestinal system are also affected by aging. For instance, the small intestines will have a decreasing lactase level, which leads to the intolerance of milk and dairy products. There will be an excessive growth of bacteria which can lead to bloating, pain and weight loss. The pancreas, gallbladder, and liver usually decrease in weight as we age. Some of the tissues are replaced by scaring and a number of structural as well as microscopic changes occur, making these organs prone to injury and illness.

Physiologic Changes in the Urinary System

There is a slow and steady decline in kidneys weight as we age. At the age of 30 to 40, two-thirds of the kidneys’ function of filtering blood undergoes a gradual decline. The arteries that supply the kidneys become narrower, which makes even healthy kidneys decrease in size. Also, the small arteries that flow to the glomeruli thicken over time, reducing their capacity to function. This declining ability will have an impact on the nephrons that excrete waste products. That is why several drugs are not filtered and removed properly as we age. However, sufficient kidney function can be preserved to the meet the body’s needs. The changes that occur in our kidneys may or may not cause disease, but this can reduce the degree of reserve kidney function. This means that both kidneys have to work to their full capacity to perform the normal kidney function.

Ureters do not undergo a lot of changes compared to the bladder and urethra. The volume of urine that a bladder holds decreases with time, as well as the ability to delay urination after feeling the need to urinate. There is also a decreasing rate of urine outflow to the urethra and the sporadic contractions of the bladder wall muscles are not blocked by the brain, resulting in urinary incontinence. In women, there is a shortening of the urethra and a thinning of its lining. These changes will decrease the urinary sphincter’s ability to close tightly, placing a person at risk for urinary incontinence. In men, the prostate gland tends to enlarge and blocks the flow of urine. This blockage can cause urinary retention and kidney damage if left untreated.

Physiologic Changes in the Nervous System

The brain is the primary organ of the nervous system. During childhood, its ability to think and function steadily increases, allowing a child to acquire complex skills. Its abilities is relatively stable in early adulthood and will decline after a certain age. Although brain functioning as we age varies from person to person, it usually affects short-term memory, verbal abilities and intellectual performance. Older people often have a slower reaction time and brain performance compared to young people. The effects of aging on brain functioning have an influence on certain disorders like stroke, an underactive thyroid gland and degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. However, this varies from person to person.

The spinal cord and the peripheral nerves will also change as people age. The disks located in the backbones become brittle and hard, losing its capacity to cushion it and start to place pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves emerging from it. Peripheral nerves, on the contrary, may conduct impulses slowly, resulting in a decrease of sensation, clumsiness and slower reflexes. Degeneration is common among older people. The blood flow decreases and the ability of the nervous system to self-repair becomes slower and incomplete. This makes them vulnerable to injuries and various diseases.

Physiologic Changes in the Endocrine System

Despite the changes caused by aging, the endocrine system functions well in older people. The changes that occur are due to the external factors and genetically programmed changes of the cells. They may affect hormonal production and secretion, hormonal metabolism, rhythms in the body, and  target cell’s response to hormones and hormone levels that circulate in the blood. For instance, the development of Type II Diabetes is thought to be related to increasing age, especially in those individuals at greater risk of the disorder. This affects the size of the pituitary gland that regulates the production of hormones. Decreased levels of hormones can also affect heart function and cause lean muscles and osteoporosis.

Physiologic Changes in the Reproductive and Genitourinary System

Aging affects woman’s ovaries, resulting in menopause. This usually happens between the age of 45 and 65 at which time the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone and cease storing egg cells. When this happens, the menstrual period stops and a woman cannot bear children anymore. But before menopause takes place, there are perimenopause signs that every woman experiences. These symptoms include more frequent periods at first and occasional missed periods in the following months. This accompanies a change in the menstrual flow and periods that are either shorter or longer.

Menopause is a normal part of a woman’s aging process. It declines hormone levels, affecting other parts of the genitourinary system. Vaginal walls become drier, thinner and less elastic, making sex more painful and placing a woman at greater risk for vaginal yeast infections. Meanwhile, men do not have a major or rapid change in fertility as they grow older. Aging can only affect the testicular tissue, erectile function, and sperm production. Although it varies from person to person, most men experience an enlargement of the prostate gland, which causes a condition called benign prostatic hypertrophy. Erectile dysfunction and infertility occur when there is a gradual decrease in the production of testosterone, a male hormone found in the testes.