The Importance of Life Space for Older Adults

Senior woman in the bus

Some of the changes that age brings can tempt older adults to spend more time at home. Visual impairment, hearing loss, mobility challenges and memory problems can make it unsafe for them to drive. They might feel less confident when they’re out and about, fearing they might fall or get lost. Gradually some may develop a mindset that going on an outing seems like just too much trouble.

When this happens, the world of an older adult becomes smaller, with a diminished sense of independence and connection in the community. The term that is sometimes used for homebound people—“shut-in”—really isn’t far off the mark. The inability to get out can make seniors feel isolated and trapped, soon leading to inactivity and even depression.

It’s important to help seniors get back into the community. A study conducted by Chicago’s Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that seniors with a “constricted life space” were at greater risk of memory loss. The study authors defined “life space” as “the extent to which we move through our environments as we carry out our daily lives—from home to garden to workplace and beyond.”

The study, headed by epidemiologist Bryan James, Ph.D., looked at the lives of a group of seniors over the course of eight years. The researchers asked them to record how far from home they typically ventured—outside of their city, outside their neighborhood, or no farther than their own yard or front porch. Those with “constricted life space” were almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Is this a matter of cause and effect? “The reasons why a constricted life space is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease is not clear,” James said. “Certain disease processes in the brain may affect how far we move through the world years before they affect our memory and thinking. Or perhaps life space is an indicator of how much we are actively engaging and challenging our cognitive abilities.”

Whatever the case, says James, “As we continue to search for the answer, we recommend that people—particularly older adults—get out as much as possible and enjoy the world beyond their front doors.”

How can we help seniors get out and about?

Find the right activities. A trip out need not be elaborate, strenuous, or planned far in advance. Lunching with friends, attending one’s faith community, walking in a local park or garden or visiting a gallery can provide a mood boost. People with memory loss continue to benefit from outings, and these days there are more dementia-friendly programs through museums, parks and recreation departments and senior centers. Even shopping provides physical and emotional benefits. A study from The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that “retail therapy” is a real thing! 

Learn about transportation options. Sometimes older adults can extend their driving years with a senior-oriented driving class and modifications to the car, such as mirrors and pedal extenders, or a newer car with backup cameras and other updated safety features. But if driving is no longer safe, family and friends might be willing to schedule rides. Also check into public transportation, local senior transportation programs, and services such as Uber and Lyft.

Consider a senior living community. One of the advantages of living in a retirement community, assisted living community, or other senior living environment is the transportation they provide. They feature regularly scheduled shopping trips, special events, and transportation to the doctor and other appointments. Residents feel more confidence with supportive staff along for the outing.

How a care manager can help

Life space mobility and a wider living environment can do wonders for an older adult’s sense of well-being. At LifeCare Advocates, our care managers are happy to help their clients expand their life space and experience new things. Whether the older adult lives in their own home or in a group setting, we’re happy to provide transportation to appointments and social activities, as well as for errands.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners