HEALTHY BOWELS FOR A HEALTHY BODY:
As people age they often worry about changes in bowel function (or lack of function). If you are a caregiver for an older family member you also may worry about your parent's intestinal complaints and may be concerned that they could be early signs of a serious intestinal disorder.
The good news is that almost everyone — old or young suffers from constipation
occasionally as they grow older. The better news is that constipation is a symptom, not a
disease. These symptoms are easy to identify and easy to remedy by learning some
simple strategies to manage or prevent constipation recommended by a health care
The best news is that by making a few basic lifestyle changes, your parent's digestion and overall physical condition will often begin to improve. As a result he or she will have a better understanding of her intestinal functioning, how she can manage unpleasant symptoms and over time — improvement in his or her physical health and well-being.
INTESTINAL HEALTH CHECKUP
Family members can be especially helpful by suggesting that an older parent or spouse who is bothered by difficult bowel movements seek help from his or her primary care physician.
After a thorough physical exam the doctor may recommend that your relative schedule a consultation with a gastroenterologist — a specialist who treats digestive and intestinal disorders — to help her understand and manage her condition, worry less about her intestinal functioning and feel more comfortable and healthy.
CAUSES OF CONSTIPATION
Some of the most common symptoms of constipation that affect older adults and younger adults too — are:
- Not eating foods rich in fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals.
- Eating too much fatty meat, high fat diary products, eggs, and rich desserts
- Not drinking enough water and other liquids help prevent constipation and keep people stay regular.
- Overuse of laxatives and enemas. These products may help manage constipation. However when they are overused, your body comes to depend on them. Over time and may upset normal bowel habits.
- Lack of exercise
- Holding back a bowel movement
- Irritable bowel disorder that causes constipation and/or diarrhea.
Other illnesses like stroke, diabetes or an intestinal blockage that affects the nerves and muscles may also interfere with regular bowel movements. An older relative who experiences these symptoms should be seen by a gastroenterologist.
Certain over-the-counter and prescription medicines can also interfere with normal bowel movements. Commonly used medications that may cause constipation include:
- Medications prescribed to manage depression
- Antacids containing aluminwn or calcium
- Iron supplements
- Some pain killers and high blood pressure medicines
- Drugs prescribed for Parkinson's disease, stroke, diabetes, or intestinal blockage
- Calcium supplements
DO-IT-YOURSELF CONSTIPATION MANAGEMENT
Eating a healthy diet, drinking water throughout the day, and adding exercise to your parent's daily routine are excellent ways to improve your older parent's bowel health — and yours too! Be sure to schedule an appointment with parent's health care providers for a checkup before she laces up her sneakers.
Other suggestions for maintaining a healthy digestive system and bowels for your older parent and other family members:
- Serve lots of fruits and vegetables — raw or cooked — at every meal. Keep healthy snacks on hand for in-between meal munching.
- Try whole-grain breads, cereals and desserts. Keep a pitcher of water in the fridge to encourage your family to drink water throughout the day.
- Add exercise to your parent's daily routine. Walk around the block once a day. Take the stairs up or down instead of the elevator. Walk around the mall and window-shop, rake leaves, pull weeds, sweep the front steps.
- Ask your parent's doctor or pharmacist if any of her medications could affect her bowel function.
- Encourage your parent to let you or the doctor know if he or she notices any changes in bowel habits
INTESTINAL HEALTH CHECK-UPS
When your parent schedules a medical appointment for a physical exam, be sure she brings along an up-to-date list of all the over-the counter medications, prescription medicines that she currently takes — especially if she will be seeing a new doctor.
Keep a copy of the list with your parent's other medical records in case she needs to be seen by another health care provider or is admitted to the hospital. You can suggest the she take charge of her condition by making a list of questions about her digestive health and jotting down the doctor's answers.
HEAL THY BOWELS = HEALTHY BODY
Just about everyone experiences a bout with constipation at some point in their lives — especially as they grow older. Unlike many other diseases of later life this is a condition that your parent and you can quickly learn to manage.
As a caregiver you can learn from the experience of your older relative and will understand the importance of maintaining a healthy digestive system as you age.
A version of this article appeared in the Private Health News.