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Aging with MS: What to Expect and How to Be Proactive
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an immune-mediated disease that affects the central nervous system. The exact cause of MS is still unknown, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic, infectious, immunologic, and environmental factors. Though most people with MS are diagnosed between 20 and 50, MS can occur in young children and seniors. For seniors, common symptoms of MS include pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and deficits in walking and mobility.
Families of seniors with MS should seek treatment and establish a strong interdisciplinary team to support disease progression and symptom management early on. “Focus on the abilities your loved one still has,” advises Madison Mendez, Occupational Therapist and Education Specialist at EmpowerMe Wellness. “Embrace their uniqueness.”
MS in Seniors
Though the symptoms of MS don’t differ much by age, seniors with MS may experience more severe disability along with age-related changes in cognition or sensory loss. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with a progressive type of MS, or a clinical form of MS that is distinguished by a slow increase in disability or periods of progression.
Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology can address a variety of impairments that limit participation in activities and meaningful occupations. After evaluating symptoms, rehabilitation professionals establish an individual’s baseline performance and set purposeful goals. Physical therapists might establish goals related to safe mobility within one’s environment and provide education and training in the use of adaptive equipment or independence-granting mobility devices. Occupational therapists might address daily activities such as dressing, driving, medication management, or shopping. Speech-language pathologists might design interventions to address cognitive changes, safe swallowing, and deficits in speech.
Seniors with MS should seek interdisciplinary support to manage symptoms and improve their quality of life and autonomy. A neurologist specializing in MS, rehabilitation specialists, and a vigilant primary care provider are all essential members of the team to enhance daily living. They can evaluate the effects of the disease to develop appropriate interventions that may include exercise, modifications, and adaptive techniques, which are often linked to lifestyle factors. Individuals with MS should also discuss pharmacological options with their physician.
Tips for Caring for an Aging Loved One with MS
In addition to the care of a professional team, seniors with MS have much to gain from the care of their loved ones. Those caring for a loved one with MS should consider the following:
Be an Advocate
Encourage your loved one to proactively seek treatment, especially when experiencing new or changing symptoms. Be an understanding and supportive sounding board for their concerns and advocate on their behalf to medical providers. Don’t dismiss or minimize their emotions, questions, or concerns.
Build a Team
Help your loved one establish a strong interdisciplinary team. With their permission and when possible, be present at meetings and appointments.
Plan for the Future
Discuss disease progression and expected impairment early to plan for future changes and needs. Having gentle conversations about changes before they’re necessary can alleviate some of the pressure and emotion involved.
Find Support for Yourself
Prioritize finding and accepting help and support for yourself. Making sure you are well will help avoid burnout and allow you to continue caring for your loved one. Join an MS support group. Find a local one here, courtesy of the National MS Society.
Support Lifestyle Changes
Proactively discuss management of modifiable lifestyle factors such as stress, exercise, diet, sleep, and social engagement with an interdisciplinary team member. Find ways to support your loved one in making changes that will impact their overall health and disease progression.
Doctors and researchers are learning more about Multiple Sclerosis every day. Stay up to date on available resources and medical advancements. Explore local and national resources such as:
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- The Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers
- American Academy of Neurology
- Multiple Sclerosis Association of America
An MS diagnosis does not mean that your loved one cannot still live a rich and fulfilling life. A diagnosis may feel daunting, but there are many resources and options to help you and your loved one navigate the road ahead. Symptoms may even improve with the help of family, friends, and their interdisciplinary team.
Our goal at EmpowerMe Wellness is to help seniors maintain their independence and best quality of life. Learn more about our Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapy programs here.