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How to deal with a loss of independence

Strategies for finding support and success

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Whether it’s due to age-related factors, illness or disability, the loss of independence can be frustrating. However, there are strategies and support systems available to help seniors cope with this transition and maintain a fulfilling life. In this article, we provide guidance for seniors and their caregivers and explore various ways to deal with diminished autonomy.

Key insights

  • Loss of independence may be due to aging, chronic illness, injury or mental illness.
  • The impact of losing independence can be physical, emotional and social.
  • Taking care of your physical and emotional health, redefining independence, staying connected with others and seeking professional help can help you cope.
  • Caregivers can support seniors by being patient, encouraging activity and social engagement, respecting their wishes and seeking professional help when needed.

How we lose our independence

Several situations could result in someone losing their independence. Common causes include aging, health issues and loss of mobility.

  • Aging: As we age, our bodies naturally experience physical and cognitive decline, making it difficult to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) independently — e.g., bathing, dressing, eating and using the restroom.
  • Chronic illness: Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes can also lead to needed reliance. These conditions can make it difficult to perform ADLs, and they can also require increased medical care.
  • Injury: A serious injury, like from a car accident or fall, can also lead to a loss of independence due to physical limitations that make ADLs trying or impossible.
  • Mental illness: Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and dementia can also lead to a new life of dependence. These illnesses can impair a person's judgment and decision-making abilities, which can make it difficult to live independently.

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The impact of losing independence

Losing your independence can affect your mind, body and relationships.

Physical impacts

The loss of independence can lead to decreased physical activity, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

When individuals lose their independence, their activity levels may decrease, resulting in a decline in physical health. This can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.
The loss of independence can lead to changes in physical health, including difficulties with walking, climbing stairs, and getting in and out of a car. It can also affect strength, coordination, balance, flexibility, appetite, sleep patterns, vision, hearing, and cognitive function.
Independence loss can result in decreased mobility, making it difficult to walk or move around. This increases the risk of falls and injuries and reduces the ability to participate in once-enjoyable activities.
Individuals may need to depend on assistive devices to perform daily tasks. These devices can range from simple tools like canes or walkers to more advanced technologies like wheelchairs or voice-activated devices.
Some individuals may require assistance with tasks such as bathing, dressing, or eating as they lose their autonomy.

Emotional impacts

Beginning a new life of dependence often causes symptoms of depression and anxiety, including sadness, sluggishness and unease.

Individuals experiencing loss of independence may exhibit symptoms of depression, such as sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite or sleep patterns and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
You may experience anxiety symptoms, including feelings of worry, tension, unease, trouble sleeping or concentrating and physical manifestations like a racing heart or sweating.
Individuals losing their independence may feel a sense of helplessness, perceiving a lack of control over their lives.
A loss of independence can bring on feelings of isolation and solitude, potentially resulting in a disconnection from friends and family.
As you rely more on others, you may experience a diminished sense of self-worth and feel as if you’ve lost your identity.
Some individuals may be hesitant to seek assistance, perceiving themselves as burdensome or believing they should be capable of managing tasks independently.
The loss of independence may cause confusion; you or a loved one might struggle to comprehend the circumstances or determine the next course of action.

Social impact

A loss of independence can also lead to a range of consequences — you may lose interest in social activities, forget appointments or discontinue scheduled engagements.

As independence diminishes, you may lose enthusiasm for social activities and may be less inclined to spend time with friends or family.
The loss of independence can lead to forgetfulness regarding appointments and other scheduled events.
Individuals losing their independence may start canceling plans at the last minute or making excuses for their inability to participate.
As independence declines, individuals may avoid going outside for tasks like grocery shopping or doctor visits.
You or your loved one may spend a significant amount of time alone, feeling disconnected from the world and lacking social interaction.
Losing independence can trigger feelings of sadness and isolation.
Individuals losing their independence may undergo a change in self-perception, feeling like they’re no longer the same person and losing their sense of purpose.
The loss of independence can strain relationships with friends and family as individuals become more dependent on others for assistance.

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6 coping strategies

Coping with the loss of independence can be challenging for seniors and their loved ones, but there are strategies to help navigate this transition with resilience and a positive mindset.

1. Take care of your physical and emotional health

Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and enough sleep can all help you cope with the stress of losing your independence. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety. Bayu Prihandito, a certified psychology expert & life coach, suggests, "By fully immersing yourself in the present moment, you can effectively reduce anxiety and stress that may arise during the transition. Incorporating practices like meditation, deep-breathing exercises, or even mindful eating can greatly contribute to your overall well-being."

2. Make changes to your home and use adaptive devices

You can invest in changes to your home to make it safer and more accessible as you age and mobility decreases. This could include installing grab bars, walk-in tubs, ramps, railings and other modifications.

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There are also adaptive devices that can help you maintain your independence. Talk to your doctor or a therapist about what devices might be right for you.

3. Opt for assisted living and other professional services

Assisted living communities can offer support and assistance while still promoting independence and a sense of community. If you're still struggling to cope, talk to your doctor or a therapist for guidance.

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4. Acknowledge your feelings

It's normal to feel a range of emotions, like sadness, anger, frustration and fear, when you lose your independence. Allow yourself to feel these emotions, but don't dwell on them. Talking to a friend, family member, therapist or other trusted person can help you process your feelings and develop coping strategies.

5. Focus on the positive

It's important to focus on the things you can still do rather than the things you can't. Make a list of your strengths and abilities, and focus on activities you enjoy.

Identify areas where you can still maintain control, make decisions and engage in hobbies. This shift in perspective can be empowering and provide a sense of autonomy and purpose.

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6. Stay connected

Make sure you have a strong support system of people who can help you cope with the loss of independence. Social interaction is important for your mental and emotional health.

Make an effort to stay connected with friends and family, even if it's just through phone calls or video chats. Volunteering, joining a club or taking a class are all great ways to stay connected with your community and meet new people.

How to show support

When seniors experience a loss of independence, it can be difficult for them to cope. It’s important for caregivers and family members to provide support and understanding during this time.

Some caregiver tips for supporting seniors include:

  • Be patient and understanding: Your loved one may experience frustration, anger or sadness. Let them know you're there for them and empathize with their situation.
  • Encourage staying active: Physical and mental health are important; your loved one may be able to engage in some physical activities, even with limited mobility. Consider going for walks together, doing gentle exercises or playing games.
  • Help them stay connected: Assist them in maintaining connections with friends, family and the community. Try attending social events together, encouraging participation in activities or regularly checking in with them.
  • Respect their wishes: Honor your loved one's decisions, even if they differ from your own. For instance, if they prefer not to use a wheelchair, respect their choice. Making decisions about your own life is empowering.
  • Seek professional help if needed: A therapist can offer support, guidance and coping strategies to help navigate this challenging time.
  • Help them identify strengths and interests: Assisting your loved one in keeping up with their interests — and finding new ones — can keep them invigorated.
  • Ensure a safe and accessible home: Make necessary changes (e.g., installing grab bars or a walk-in tub) to their living environment to enhance safety and accessibility.
  • Get involved in their care: Participate in your loved one's care by offering physical assistance, providing transportation or simply being there for them emotionally.
  • Take care of yourself: Caring for someone who has lost their independence can be demanding. Remember to prioritize your own physical and emotional well-being.
  • Encourage self-care: Promote healthy habits such as eating nutritious meals and getting enough sleep. Encourage your loved one to take time for themselves to relax and de-stress.
  • Help them find resources: Numerous organizations provide help, including respite care, financial assistance and emotional support for seniors.
  • Collaborate and involve seniors in decision-making: Empower seniors by involving them in decision-making about their care. This ensures their preferences and desires are respected.
  • Don't hesitate to ask for help: If you feel overwhelmed, reach out to other family members, friends or professionals for assistance.

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    What if a senior resists assistance or adapting to their new circumstances?

    This is not uncommon. It's important to approach the situation with patience and understanding; respect their autonomy and preferences while gently encouraging them to consider the benefits of receiving help.

    Provide information about available resources and support, and allow your loved one time to process their emotions. Professional guidance or counseling may be beneficial in addressing their concerns and facilitating acceptance.

    How can I balance respecting a senior's independence while ensuring their safety and well-being?

    Striking a balance between respecting a senior's independence and ensuring their safety requires open communication and collaboration. Involve them in decision-making processes, consider their preferences and desires and explore assistive technologies or support services that promote independence.

    Regularly reassess your loved one’s needs and capabilities, making necessary adjustments to their care plan while keeping their safety and well-being top priorities.

    I’m losing my independence — how do I ask for help without feeling like a burden?

    It's common to feel hesitant or guilty about asking for help. Remember that reaching out for assistance is not a sign of weakness, but a way to maintain your well-being. Communicate your needs clearly, express gratitude for the support you receive and reciprocate by offering help or companionship.

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