Sensory losses in elders

Though the ageing process is unique for every individual, most of us will experience a drop in the capabilities of our sensory organs when we get really old

Elderly person with flowers

In Easing communication with elders, we had looked at easing the communication difficulties faced by elderly persons who suffer a natural deterioration in their vision and hearing due to the ageing process. In this article, we deal with a few other sensory losses, like taste, touch and smell. Decline in the sense of taste and smell can make life miserable for the person concerned, as it affects the diet and eating habits, making the person weak and fragile. Losing the sense of touch, even partly, can lead to dangerous situations and result in the person getting injured.

TASTE

Often, we find elderly persons complaining about the food being unappetising or giving an unpleasant taste. This has got nothing to do with the cooking quality, [as others find the fare served perfectly tasty], but with the decline in taste sensitivity due to ageing.

How does this happen?

As we all know, taste buds are responsible for giving us the four main tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. A normal person has approximately 9000 taste buds. As ageing sets in - between the ages of 50-60 in men and 40-50 in women - the number of taste buds begin to decrease. This does not immediately lead to reduced taste sensitivity. But coupled with atrophy [degeneration] of the remaining taste buds, and reduced saliva production, it may induce a small loss of taste. However, the process is hastened if the senior has the habit of smoking, chewing tobacco, or is suffering from diseases like Alzheimer's.

Potential problem and its possible solution

  1. When a person loses his sensitivity to taste, there is every chance that he may lose interest in eating, leading to weakness and fatigue. A change in the way the meal is presented, or spices used in the preparation of the dish could help.
  2. Decline in taste sensitivity can result in consumption of overcooked or stale food, leading to a dangerous situation of food poisoning. The only remedy is to supervise the cleaning out of refrigerators regularly and checking whether food has been hoarded.

SMELL

The aroma of a deliciously cooked meal increases your appetite. But decline in the sense of smell and inability to differentiate between odours can make an elderly person completely disinterested in food. The scent of flowers is a pleasurable experience and not being able to smell them can be distressing.

How does it happen?

The loss of smell is brought about by ageing, sometimes after the age of 70, and aggravated by habits such as smoking and continuous intake of medication. Declining sense of smell can have dire consequences.

Potential problem and its possible solution

Apart from loss of appetite, the person may not be able to sense danger in the form of gas leaks, smoke and fire, thereby increasing the risk of asphyxia [extreme condition caused by lack of oxygen and excess of carbon dioxide in the blood]. Installing smoke detectors and visual gas detectors that change appearance when natural gas is present may be helpful.

TOUCH

Reduced sense of touch is common in senior citizens. It is not clear whether this is primarily due to ageing or due to medications for other disorders that commonly occur in the elderly.

How does it happen?

Our skin, muscles, tendons, joints, and internal organs have receptors that detect touch, temperature, or pain. The brain interprets the type of touch sensation as being hot, cold or neutral. Brain surgery, chronic diseases like diabetes, and nerve damage as a result of trauma, can make the brain not interpret the sensation of extreme heat or cold as bothersome.

Potential problem and possible solution

  1. This is dangerous, as decreased temperature sensitivity could increase the chances of frostbite, burns or hypothermia. There is a gradual reduction of sensitivity to pain after the age of 50 in some persons, resulting in walking problems and pressure ulcers. Use water heaters that allow you to limit the maximum temperature of water. This will reduce the risk of burns.
  2. If you live in a place that has extreme climatic variations, it is wise to dress in accordance with the ambient temperature reading in a thermometer.
  3. Keep a constant watch on their skin, especially the hands and feet, for injuries. If you spot one, don't ignore it, assuming that the pain is insignificant. Treat it immediately.
  4. In some cases, we find elders having more sensitivity to light and heat because of the thin texture of their skin. This can also result in burns. Such elders should limit their exposure to sunlight and remain indoors during the afternoon hours.

FINALLY

Though the ageing process is unique for every individual, most persons will experience some alteration in their sensory organs. Some may have problems with communication and social interactions making him/her feel isolated. Hearing and vision changes are familiar, whereas the decline in other senses, though not so visibly dramatic, are equally debilitating. Whether these changes are induced by ageing or by the diseases common in aged persons, is immaterial. A proper understanding of the situation and timely remedies to be undertaken, and a caring attitude from the members of the family can greatly reduce the problems faced by the affected elderly.

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