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On Health

Our parents become more dependent on caregivers and family as they get older and are less able to navigate the physical and mental challenges of accessing increasingly inaccessible necessities of life such as health care, travel and activities of daily living. The good news is that there are effective, frequently underutilized, steps that can improve or, at least, maintain function.

Today’s column provides strategies for optimizing mobility, the ability to walk and function independently. Mobility is a critical marker for long term survival and quality of life that, when reduced, can contribute to greater risk for falls, infection, cardiovascular disease, mood problems, declining mental acuity and more.

1.Mind over matter: It is most important that your loved one is motivated to get around better. Set achievable goals in small steps and celebrate every achievement. I’ve found that a conversation with a doctor is helpful when family encouragement isn’t doing the trick.

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2.Muscle strength: It frequently takes just a small amount of additional strength to make a big improvement in mobility, so don’t get discouraged. Address all muscle groups, not just leg strength. Core muscles and upper extremity strength are also necessary.

3.Balance: Balance is accomplished by a remarkable combination of body systems working together, including the inner ear, vision, motor and sensory nerves, muscles and joints, all orchestrated by the brain. If any one of these is lacking or there are obstacles such as pain or reduced confidence, balance will suffer.

4. Pain: Pain from joint diseases such as arthritis, injuries or even unrelated organ systems such as dyspepsia (digestive discomfort) can limit mobility. Naturopathic and other strategies that address these can be helpful.

5. Vision: Visual acuity, cataracts, poor adaptation and other eye problems can affect mobility, especially when lighting is poor. Most of these problems are fixable. Eye exercises are controversial but may provide benefit.

6. Range of motion/flexibility: Flexibility and range of motion can be a game changer, especially when recovering from an unstable moment. Specific, gentle exercises are effective even when there is pain or injury in the affected body area. They are easily incorporated into an exercise program.

7. Fatigue: There are many possible reasons for fatigue including poor sleep quality, hormones, metabolic issues and drug side-effects. In extreme cases the patient may be just too exhausted to move.

I start with the big picture looking at literally every body system. Everything is connected (Anatomy 101). Stimulants are not the answer.

8. Confidence and security: Self-confidence and personal safety can affect a patient’s willingness to improve mobility. Focus on a safe environment, success, positive reinforcement, achieving goals and respect. This means removing negative influences where possible.

Be a consistent and vigilant advocate, partner with like-minded providers, and don’t let the health care system bully you.

Managing mobility can yield great rewards for both patient and family; an investment worth making. See my blog at nwnaturalhealth.com/blog for more information.

Dan Labriola, N.D.: DrLabriola@nwnaturalhealth.com. Labriola is director of the Northwest Natural Health, a specialty care clinic and medical director for naturopathic services, Swedish Medical Center’s Cancer Institute; the clinic website is nwnaturalhealth.com.