How to promote independence in older people

Independence sounds like a simple concept. At the most basic level, it means having autonomy and control over your own life.

We might feel more independent when we move out of our childhood home, get a car or start our first job. These things all enable us to live how we want to and take ownership of our lives and responsibilities.

We typically gain more independence as we move out of childhood and adolescence. But as we get older, our independence can be compromised as we start to require help in carrying out everyday tasks as a result of changing mobility, capacity and health.

However, when an older person starts to lose their ability to be fully independent, this doesn’t mean their desire to be independent has dwindled. In this scenario, independence is a balance of accepting help and being supported to do things autonomously, while ensuring there remains good communication between the older person and those caring for them.

Why is independence so important?

Retaining independence benefits older people in many ways. It can help their physical and mental health, boost their confidence and self-esteem, and improve their sense of purpose and quality of life. It can help them feel useful, which is especially important if they tend to fear they’re a burden on loved ones.

Giving someone the independence to do one thing can boost their confidence and radiate into other areas of life. For example, instilling in them the confidence to go to the hairdressers alone could make them more aware of their own abilities, and mean they want to start doing other things independently, too.

How can I help?

There are many ways to promote independence, and this will need to be tweaked according to the person’s abilities, which may fluctuate over time. Small things go a long way in this instance. For example, make sure they choose their meals and activities, or if they’re going for a walk, let them choose the route.

When providing care for a loved one, it’s very easy to get into the habit of doing things for them. After all, it’s only natural to want to help. Caring for a loved one isn’t easy – and the instinct is to be hands-on. But we must remember that this isn’t always the best way to help.

It may take your loved one longer to carry out a task themselves (such as putting their groceries away) then if you helped them, but you must bear in mind that it may still be important for them to do it without help. At times when you’re concerned they really do need your help, perhaps suggest offering to do the task with them, not for them.

But promoting independence doesn’t just mean stepping back with physical tasks. It’s important to give elderly people as much input and control over their lives and the decisions that affect them as possible. This includes their schedule, where they live, how they spend their time, and their finances.

It’s important to not only promote independence, but to help your loved one maintain that level of independence, too. Helping them maintain their independence means giving them the tools they need to ensure they can continue to do things independently when you’re not there to help. It could mean providing transportation for them to get to appointments or arranging for home care.

Living independently at home

For most older people, independence is largely tied to being able to stay in their own homes. There are many care options available for those who need extra support, such as live-in carers, or regular visits from care support workers, as well as the care and support of family and friends.

It’s also important to ensure the house helps to promote independence as much as possible. Perhaps that means installing a handrail in the shower, adding a chair to the kitchen or installing a chair lift. It may just mean moving items to more accessible cupboards. Read more on home adaptations.

Knowing when to step in to help

Promoting a person’s independence is a fine balance of knowing when they really need help, and when they need to do something independently. And of course, there will be times when you need to step in.

In these cases, it’s advisable to help without making a big deal of the fact you’re helping and without drawing attention to what the person is no longer able to do. One of the most important aspects of caring for a loved one is humour and fun – be self-effacing, let it be known you’re rubbish at doing certain tasks too, and need help from others, too.

You must also be aware of the difference between someone wanting to do things independently, and them insisting to do things themselves because they feel obliged, guilty or burdensome. You must, therefore, be vigilant of the clues that suggest how easy it is for the person to carry out the tasks they want to do, and bear in mind their personality. Is it in their character to refuse help when they need it?

If all the clues point to them wanting more help than they let on, you can determine which areas of life they may need more help, while making sure they have independence elsewhere. For example, if they are no longer physically able to get dressed independently without difficulty, but still have full capacity, you could ensure they have full control over decisions and finances, while suggesting they receive help getting changed.

On the contrary, if you know the person is capable of more than they’re letting on, perhaps fear or uncertainty is holding them back. In this case, gently encourage them and make progress gradually, asking for their help more each time.

Maintaining independence requires the person to be self-confident, healthy and happy. This is why it’s important to ensure they’re getting involved in activities and staying physically active and engaged with others. This could be as simple as suggesting a daily walk around the local area, or even helping to arrange exercise classes.

Support and advice

If you need advice on the capacities of a loved one, or are looking for advice on home adjustments, there are many places you can go for help. Contact your local authority’s social services, search for local charities, or look at the resources available at national charities, including Age UK and Age International.

At Home Instead, we’ll help you find experienced Care Professionals in your local area so that your loved ones can keep living independently in their own home for as long as possible. Get in touch with us for further advice and information on home care. You can also find out more about how Home Instead works.