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Aging With Grace For Boomers With Disabilities

KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

There’s a lot of emphasis on healthy aging, as more baby boomers hit 65. But what about those seniors who don’t ski and skydive for fun?

For many, older adulthood brings some decline in function. And for people living with physical disabilities the slide is more dramatic. A University of Washington study is focusing on this often overlooked population and hopes to help them age with grace.

Most people would say they want to be able to maintain their independence as they age. Lan Remme is no different.

“Anytime that I can head out someplace or do something on my own without relying on someone, it’s a huge boost of independence,” Remme, 67, said.

Remme is recently retired. But unlike most retirees, Remme lost the use of his legs three years ago in a bicycle accident.

“The thing about being in a wheelchair is that it makes you a person 50 times more dependent on others than you would be normally,” he said.

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Remme shared this on a Wednesday afternoon with wellness coach Nikki Bagli, who asked Remme extensive questions about his health, daily routine and social interactions. The information gives her a window into his life and will help her come up with a plan for his health goals.

“We like to start with, ‘I have this big goal of what I want to do, but what are all the little steps that it will take to get there?’” Bagli said.

Exercise was a big part of Remme’s life before the accident, and he wants to stay active. These days he’s focusing on building upper body strength: “If my function is enhanced by strengthening or flexibility and my ability to transfer myself, to move from wheelchair to bed, from wheelchair to driving seat on my own, adds my independence, makes life easier for others around me.”

Remme and Bagli planned to meet again to discuss how to reach those goals.

'Successful Aging'

Remme’s meeting with a wellness coach is part of the UW study. While healthy aging has been studied, little has been done for people like Remme, who live with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis or post-polio syndrome.

Ivan Molton is a rehab psychologist at the University of Washington who is leading the study.

“A lot of the models for what was 'successful aging' specified not having a disability as one of the criteria,” he said. “So you had to age into older adulthood and be physically active, and physically healthy and not have a medical condition and not have a disability. And that is completely out of touch with reality.”

Molton said that aging generally slows people down. But it’s harder for those with physical disabilities. For example, fatigue is a common problem. So is pain.

“If you look at the reasons why people with disability retire early, it’s not usually because of disability, it’s because of these extra problems,” he said.

Molton said he hopes the study will help them deal with changes in their physical health. He also hopes it will provide support for their emotional well-being, and help keep them connected to their communities.

The study is modeled after Senior Services' Project Enhance, a community-based program for older adults that’s been around since the 90s. 

Sasha May of Project Enhance said it’s up to the participants to set health goals. It could be something simple like being able to walk to the mailbox. Or it could be a specific target, like lowering blood pressure. A counselor helps tailor the steps to reaching those goals.

“Maybe it’s attending a fitness class at their local community center. The counselor will work with them on, where exactly is the class, what days of the weeks are the class held, how are you going to get there?” she said. “If your neighbor can’t drive you because they’re sick, what’s an alternative plan?”

Looking To 75

Remme has never done yoga, but he wanted to give it a try at Adaptive Yoga Northwest. His wife Laura helped him extend his arm up as he inhaled. 

This class is part of Remme’s goal of improving his flexibility and stamina. He wonders about the same things many of his peers ponder about aging: Will he continue to live at home, will he lose strength and independence?

In Remme’s mind, these are issues to prepare for. 

“I think age 75, 76, is a turning point, even for healthy people. They recommend that they not have stairs and that kind of thing,” he said.  He chuckled. “Of course I’m already past that. I don’t have to worry about stairs; I have a wheelchair so I can get around. So maybe I’ll be better off at 75 than the average person.”

Remme said that if he keeps up his exercise and continues to stay connected with his friends, he looks forward to what life will be at age 75.

Year started with KUOW: 1994