2017-02-17 / Columns

Empower your senses while you can

Other Side of 50
Andrea Gallagher

We humans tend to take our senses for granted—until they stop working as well as they had in the past.

It’s a well-known fact of life that our senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) all decline as we age.

Our vision, especially, tends to get worse with age. We may be less able to tolerate glare. Cataracts, which can make vision fuzzy, are relatively common and usually occur later in life.

Dry eyes are also a part of the natural aging process. The majority of people over age 65 experience some symptoms of dry eyes.

Hearing loss in both ears increases with age, beginning between ages 40 and 50.

Our sense of taste become less sharp. The number of taste buds decreases and each remaining taste bud also begins to shrink. Reduced flow of saliva may also lead to diminished taste.

The sense of smell declines rapidly in our 50s. By our 80s, smell detection is almost 50 percent of what it was in our younger years.

With aging, our touch sensations may be reduced or changed. Touch is affected by many conditions because anything that damages the nervous system can impact touch.

Disruption of touch is common following a stroke, and people with severe diabetes will also lose some of their sense of touch when the nerves to their hands and feet get damaged.

As we age we are also less sensitive to pain. For example, when you are injured, you may not know how severe the injury is because the pain does not trouble you.

The good news: We live in a time where many interventions are available to help compensate for our declining senses.

Let’s take sight, for example. Of course there are bifocals, trifocals and reading glasses. Surgery is now commonplace for those affected by cataracts. One of my favorite sight enablers is my Kindle. The backlight makes it so much easier to read and I can change the font size to what is comfortable for me.

I recently complained to my friend that I was getting less enjoyment reading my People magazine. My eyes were having difficulty with glare from the glossy pages, and it was hard to read the smaller fonts.

My friend suggested that I was getting so old that maybe I was unfamiliar with most of the young celebrities in People, and that’s why I wasn’t enjoying it. But I knew it was my aging eyes. Now that I’ve moved to reading People on my Kindle, I’m enjoying the magazine again.

For those with hearing loss, there are hearing aids as well as amplified phones and captioned phones. There are alerting systems that include lights and vibrations for alarms and doorbells.

One’s sense of touch can be improved by wrapping a rubber band around a drinking glass, the handle of a utensil or a doorknob to provide a better grip.

A diminished sense of taste and smell can be improved by enhancing food—altering spiciness or texture—to make it more enjoyable. Chilis can make food hotter, and texture can be made more creamy or crunchy.

As human lifespans get longer, our senses will likely continue to decline, but at the same time, innovative ways to compensate for the losses will continue to be developed. Our job will be open-minded enough to adopt them when needed.

Andrea Gallagher, CSA, is president of Senior Concerns, a nonprofit agency. Visit www.seniorconcerns.org for more information. Email andrea@seniorconcerns.org for comments or questions.

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