EXERCISE programs, cooking classes and art workshops are key to improving the quality of life for millions of Australian seniors.
Aged care researcher Michael Fine, Honourary Professor at Sydney's Macquarie University, said Australian aged care providers need to catch up their European counterparts. He's calling on the industry to model its method of care on the 'reablement' approach - as seen in the Netherlands - to unlock the full potential that could improve quality of life for older Australians.
Mr Fine has been researching aged care and social policy for more than 40 years and recently completed a submission for the royal commission into aged care.
"Reablement is a rejection of the old misguided assumption that ageing is an irreversible and inevitable process of physical and mental decline," Professor Fine said.
"Instead of promoting dependence, care and support can be provided in a more liberating way that will enhance a person's independence and help them maintain, rather than lose, existing abilities.
"Most people, including older people, are at less than optimal fitness, and there is considerable scope to improve quality of life by improving fitness and a wide range of other activities, including supporting social engagement, developing creativity and fostering self-care skills, such as cooking.
"Done in the right way, this is a win for older people and for the services they depend on, freeing up resources for others who depend on help."
Professor Fine pointed to not-for-profit aged care and disability support provider, Feros Care, as an example of an Australian provider leading the reablement approach, which included exercise and wellbeing programs, and innovative in-home technologies that benefited seniors.
Feros Care was last year recognised internationally at the Global Ageing Network Awards in Toronto, Canada for a number of technologies, which were described as "innovative and applicable world wide" for empowering seniors to be independent, safe and connected while remaining in their own home.
Feros Care's chief operations officer for community services, Rebecca Wilkinson, said a person's age and condition should not define them.
She said Feros provided a range of community programs that focussed on reablement and wellbeing.
"These programs include short-term restorative care programs, our virtual chronic disease rehabilitation programs called 'Staying Healthy, Living Well', and a range of group and individual allied health programs to strengthen and improve a person's health and wellbeing," Ms Wilkinson said.
She said Feros Care's reablement and wellbeing programs, combined with innovative technologies, were specifically designed to empower seniors find purpose in their lives, and to stay in their homes longer.
"As soon as you start to take away an older person's independence, they lose it very quickly and in many cases find it extremely hard to regain," she said.
"The benefit of a reablement and wellness focus is you can help people rediscover their purpose - or their 'why' - to motivate them to get out of bed every day and become engaged in a range of activities like tai chi, group exercise or cooking classes.
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"It's all about self esteem and confidence - for as long as they are able, older people should be able have control over their own lives and decide where they need a bit of help or support, and where they can manage just fine themselves.
She also said having access to a range of alarms, technical aids and other innovative solutions like Feros Care's Virtual Seniors Centre, means staying home isn't an isolating or unsafe experience any more.
"Seniors are able to improve their confidence with technology and engage with the world over the internet," she said.
Professor Fine said there were many reasons why more seniors were living independently in their homes for longer.
"The biggest change we have seen is people are living life more fully into their older age now, and we know there are plenty of options available to us before considering full-time residential care," he said.
"There has been a real shift in our perception of what aged care actually is - by accessing more information on the internet, we are now empowered, better informed and understand there is more to aged care than just putting a person into a nursing home.
"We also have better access to health management and prevention, and there have been significant in-home care technology advancements - seeing people enjoy a better quality and safer life at home into older age."
Warding off physical decline
According to Bond University's associate professor of exercise and sport science, Justin Keogh, seniors are more likely to look after their own health and wellbeing at home.
"People simply have more opportunities to be physically active in their own home," said the Gold Coast-based researcher.
"In an aged care facility, some options to be physically active can be removed if a person is deemed to be too high-risk for falls, for example - and the more sedentary you become, the faster you lose muscle mass and strength and increase body fat, which further accelerates the decline into disability and poor health."
Ass Prof Keogh said current research indicated improving and maintaining strength and balance were the cornerstones for warding off physical and cognitive decline.
"If older people have poor strength and balance, it's much more likely they'll become increasingly unable to get themselves out of a chair, for example - increasing their chance of having falls when they do stand and try to walk and ending up in a nursing home because they can't get the level of care they need at home," he said.
"It is extremely important seniors get an early assessment by a healthcare professional, who can refer them, if required, to an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist who can develop them a tailored exercise program.
He said many exercise programs have been developed for seniors and are often funded by the government.
"These exercise sessions can be performed at home or as part of a group of likeminded seniors in your local area, with even two such sessions of strength and balance training per week resulting in substantially improved independence, quality of life and overall health and wellbeing."
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