What Primary Dangers Does an Aging Person Confront?

As an elder person’s body and mind age, the elder becomes vulnerable to dangers that once presented lesser threats.

First, the elder’s body is likely to suffer chronic disease, such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and organ failure, leading to supportive medication regimes and therapies (such as dialysis or cardiac surgery).  Each therapy or medication may have its own unwanted side effects, further complicating the elder’s chronic disease picture.  Chronic disease and an aging immune system, as well as some medications used to address various chronic diseases, make the elder more vulnerable to infectious disease.  Even commonplace colds and flu can present real threats.  Finally, the elder suffers risk from blunt trauma.  As balance declines, the likelihood of falls increases.  Driving skills deteriorate.  Vision may diminish.  Tasks that once were pedestrian become a challenge.  A proud elder may insist on persevering in taking out the garbage or climbing a short ladder or driving to the grocery store.  The results can dismay.

Second, physical challenges are often accompanied by decline in mental capabilities.  An elder’s cognitive abilities may erode to the point where judgment itself is impaired, making the elder a danger to herself.  Depression or dementia may dramatically curtail the elder’s desire to relate to others or care for herself.

Third, the elder’s social world may erode.  As friends and family members themselves die, the number of those attending the well-being of the elder may be reduced.  If family ties are not vibrant, the elder may find herself alone.  Social need, combined with impaired judgment, can lead the elder to form undesirable “friendships” in which a person willing to take advantage is given access to the elder’s world.  Loneliness is a cause of great suffering, and can lead to depression.  Complicated grief that accompanies loss of loved ones or physical illness and pain can linger for years.  Seniors are very vulnerable socially.

Fourth, seniors are vulnerable financially.  Few seniors planned to live as long as they are living.  The social support net has frayed under the welter of bad national financial news.  Pension systems have collapsed; others are being curtailed.  Housing values have fallen, wiping out decades of many elders’ investments, monies on which the elder relied for financial security and peace of mind.  Elders may lack funds to take care of themselves, just at the time when they also lack the ability to search out assistance with this problem.

Fifth, many elders are emotionally vulnerable.  As cognitive abilities decline, emotions are less fully inhibited.  Fear, anxiety, depression, and grief may overwhelm the elder.  If also socially isolated, the senior may present a risk for suicide.  Hopelessness can savage a senior’s world, making them angry, sullen, and caustic toward others.  Caring for an elder can deeply stress the caregiver.  The elder may be at risk of assault from her caregiver, under difficult circumstances.

All these dangers are features of death by chronic decline.  Humans are social creatures; our links, even when we do not recognize them, persevere.  Our family members and our neighbors are part of us.  Caring communities reach out to their elders and vulnerable persons (children, disabled persons, the ill, the newcomer) to provide such assistance as is possible.  Often, with independent elders, such help is needed, but not welcomed.  Our role may be to stand by, watching with compassion, ready to step in when finally the wall of denial crumbles.  Eventually, most elders find ways to accept assistance.