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Incontinence issues in the elderly

While incontinence is not commonly discussed, research shows it is a significant health issue.

Key points:

  • Incontinence can have a big impact on daily life and is not a normal part of ageing

  • You are more likely to develop incontinence issues if you have a chronic condition or illness

  • There are ways to prevent incontinence or fix incontinence issues if you have already started having issues

A nurse talking to an older woman about incontinence aids
Not only is incontinence often preventable, there are treatments to fix the problem if you develop it. [Source: Shutterstock]

About 4.8 million Australians are affected by incontinence, a number predicted to grow to 6.5 million by 2030.

The good news is that for the majority of older adults, incontinence can be 'cured', or at least better managed.

Continence products, such as pads and catheters, can assist people affected by incontinence to lead a normal life.

This does not replace the need to seek professional advice from a health professional which should always be the first step in learning what's causing and how to manage your incontinence.

What is incontinence?

There are two types of incontinence, according to the Continence Foundation of Australia - urinary incontinence or faecal incontinence.

Urinary incontinence could appear as 'leaking' when you laugh, sneeze, cough, or do exercise. More severe cases of incontinence could mean being unable to control your bladder.

Faecal incontinence refers to leakage from the bowel due to involuntary bowel movements. This could range from excessive wind to staining to full bowel movements.

Incontinence can appear at any stage of life, however, older people have many increased risk factors.

For instance, dementia can affect an older person's ability to remember where the toilet is, how to unfasten their clothes, and what they are meant to do when they get to the toilet. They can also experience differing bowel changes due to medication side effects.

Whereas someone with Parkinson's can have their bowel and bladder impacted, for example by getting little warning or urgency for urination, wanting to urinate often, issues with completely emptying the bladder, and needing to get up during the night often to urinate.

You are more likely to develop incontinence if you have chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart conditions, and prostate problems.

Incontinence is quite common in Australia, with around one in four Australians experiencing problems.

But you need to remember that incontinence isn't something that just happens to older Australians, it is an issue that develops from other chronic problems.

The good thing is, not only is incontinence often preventable, there are treatments to fix the problem if you develop it.

Prevention

The Continence Foundation of Australia says incontinence can be prevented through something as simple as having a healthy diet and upkeeping good lifestyle habits.

Drinking water is really important in a diet. People who develop a bladder control problem may reduce their fluid intake because they are worried that might be causing the issue, however, it can actually exacerbate the incontinence.

In your diet, you should be eating plenty of fibre through your food, which will complement the fluids you are intaking.

Maintaining a healthy body weight for someone your height can be helpful, as having more body fat can actually lead to strain on your pelvic floor, which impacts your bladder and bowels ability to function well.

Similarly, smoking has been known to weaken your pelvic floor if you develop an ongoing cough, so it can be a good idea to quit or reduce your smoking.

Exercise has a good impact on your body, including moving your bowels. Either 30 minutes of exercise most days a week or pelvic floor exercises can be beneficial.

The Continence Foundation of Australia recommends practising good toilet habits. For instance, going to the toilet when you need to instead of waiting and sitting in the right position on the toilet - this could mean getting a footstool.

Finding the right product

There are many continence products on the market that can assist you to stay dry and comfortable if you are experiencing incontinence issues.

These range from disposable or reusable pads and pants, protectors for mattresses and chairs, condom drainage for men, and catheters.

Pads and pants can be purchased at pharmacies, supermarkets or wholesalers.

A continence nurse advisor can discuss your needs with you and help you choose the correct products to suit your needs.

Continence nurse advisors teach clients and carers how to use and care for products and keep you updated about new products at follow-up appointments.

Your local continence clinic can provide you with information about continence products, suppliers of continence products, as well as information about subsidy schemes for which you may be eligible.

Living with incontinence

If you have incontinence, it can cause a lot of anxiety, especially in the company of others or when you are out in public.

A continence health professional may be the right expert to engage to find out what options are available to you and develop a plan that works within your lifestyle.

Continence health professionals could include nurses who specialise in continence, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, pharmacists, your General Practitioner (GP), urologist or gynaecologist, geriatrician, or gastroenterologist.

The Continence Foundation of Australia recommends putting in place a daily routine. When you are planning your routine, you should consider your home and work life, any social outings that may be coming up, exercise, the relationships you have including intimate relationships, and travel.

The Foundation suggests packing continence products that will cover you for the period of time you are out. This can include any cleaning or odour neutralising products, and depending on the severity, maybe a spare set of clothing.

If you are aware of food or drink you consume that can affect your condition, you may need to alter what you consume when you are out. Additionally, the Foundation recommends testing any changes to your routine at home, or where you are comfortable, before implementing a strategy when out in public or at a social occasion.

If you are worried about leaving the house because of your incontinence, you could use the National Public Toilet Map to find nearby restrooms. This can give you peace of mind when you are out or about or help you plan out your day.

How are you maintaining a healthy diet to keep your body in optimum condition? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

The importance of elderly nutrition
Hydration for elderly people and the dangers of dehydration
Keep mobile and stay independent

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