Even when he was in his 50s, Kiyoshi Takizawa had the physical strength to run a marathon. But in recent years, his legs weakened and he began to exhibit signs of dementia.
Takizawa, 89, began spending most of the day cooped up in his room. But last spring, his 60-year-old eldest son Norio suggested he and his father go for daily walks. The pair now take 15-minute walks every morning near Takizawa's house in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo.
Takizawa uses a wheeled walker supplied through a nursing care insurance service. "Walking has provided a certain rhythm to our lives," Norio said.
For aged people such as Takizawa who tend to withdraw from society when they weaken and begin needing nursing care, it becomes important that they remain active and can go for walks with the help of their families. In such cases, families should know how best to care for their elderly relatives so they can walk safely at their own pace.
"When elderly people are alone and inactive, they can fall into a vicious cycle. They begin to lose their desire [to exercise] because of their declining physical strength. But even walking outside the home and exchanging greetings with neighbours can bring about change," said Mio Ito, a researcher at the Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital and Institute of Gerontology.
Yuka Tanabe, deputy head of Komone Zaitaku Service Center, a nursing facility in Tokyo that provides day care services for the elderly, recommends carers select roads with light traffic and feature seasonal flowers and greenery. The centre suggests roads leading to a park as ideal walking courses.
"People accompanying elderly people should chat with them and have them name the flowers they pass along the way," she said.
She also advised including resting places, such as park benches, along walking routes.
However, not all elderly people are interested in walking and looking at nature.
"If attendants stop at the supermarket or convenience store to buy food or confectionery, it encourages old people normally uninterested in the outdoors to go for a walk," said Tsutomu Ebihara, a senior official at the center who specialises in planning nursing care services in the northern part of Higashi-Murayama, western Tokyo.
Experts also recommend carers or walking partners make a trial run over planned routes to see if there are any uneven surfaces, as elderly people often stumble as their stride becomes shorter when they age.
According to Ebihara, it is also important for elderly people to walk at their own pace. Their walking partners also should not talk down to them by saying, for example, "Are you tired already?" he said.
It is unwise to force elderly people to walk if their health is questionable. "Physical strength varies from person to person. I advise the elderly and people looking after them to consult with their family doctor and nursing care experts before beginning a walking regime," Ebihara said.
Tanabe and Ebihara have provided the following tips on walking for elderly people and their attendants:
- Wear comfortable, worn-in shoes and prepare outer layers of clothing to protect against the cold.
- Be careful not to stumble where a street and sidewalk meet, or when moving from the sidewalk into a shop. Let elderly people know when rough surfaces are ahead.
- Some kerbs slope outward so water can drain properly. Be careful not to lose your balance on these slopes.
- Be careful not to slip on manhole lids and drain grates. Fallen leaves on the ground are also slippery.
- At intersections, watch carefully for bicycles and vehicles. Elderly people can still lose their balance and fall even if they are not involved in a collision.
- When an aged person suffers from paralysis on one side of the body, attendants should walk on that side.
- Obtain more information beforehand from rehabilitation or nursing care experts.