Our poor shoulders…they are our most amazing joints, but we tend to take them for granted. Take a few moments to think about how useful our shoulders really are, and how important maintaining their function is to our independence as we age. This is food for thought for all of us who are middle-aged, on up.
As a gerontologist and certified geriatric care manager who has worked with older adults for close to three decades, I’ve observed that many aging folks have minimal or impaired shoulder function. While some are hampered by arthritis or old injuries, I’ve been told by physical and occupational therapists that most of the loss of shoulder mobility they see in seniors is from underuse or disuse. In other words, the main reason someone can’t reach straight up is that haven’t been reaching straight up – the muscles and joints tighten, weaken and lose range of motion, even freeze up. Yes, another case of “use it or lose it!”
Some attention is paid to our other main joints, such as our hips and knees, as we age. But think about all the day-to-day things we do with our shoulders – we reach, push, pull, pick up. Our shoulders move our arms up, forward, back, to the side – across our chests or out in any direction. Shoulder muscles are even indirectly involved in turning your head (very important if you are still driving). Shoulders are truly amazing joints, but we need to keep them moving! Neglecting our shoulders can greatly affect our ability to manage our daily tasks, which affects our ability to maintain our independence. We need good shoulder function for dressing, grooming, showering, navigating up steps, doing household tasks – just about everything.
Let’s do a brief primer on the marvelous SHOULDER: it’s the most complicated and flexible joint in the human body and has the greatest range of motion. It’s comprised of three bones – the shoulder blade, the collar bone, which is joined by a ball-and-socket joint to the upper arm bone. The shoulder joints (actually a total of three joints each) are surrounded by cartilage, muscles and tendons to support mobility (range of motion, reaching) and stability (strength for pushing, pulling, lifting).
The downside of this great range of motion of the shoulder is that for this joint to be this moveable, it’s inherently more unstable. Shoulders are vulnerable to injury, particularly in a fall.
So what can you do to maintain good shoulder function?
Start by asking your doctor if you are safe to do some simple arm stretches, and you then have a number of options going forward: you can join a stretching class, a water exercise class, a chair yoga class, you can work out with a personal trainer who works with seniors, or just do simple exercises on your own. There are classes on television and there are a lot of resources online, including YouTube video exercises that you can follow along with (have your grandchild set it up!). Other online resources for shoulder exercises are www.eldergym.com and www.seniorfitness.net. There are also video exercise programs, such as Wii, including a bowling game. But most of the things you can do to increase your shoulder function are just in the course of everyday activities. And you can do reaches and stretches anytime, including on a daily walk or sitting in a chair. In addition to maintaining the number of activities you can do AND maximizing your independence, you will be helping to prevent or relieve arthritis pain, encouraging blood flow (including to the brain) and gaining some valuable cardiovascular benefit. Shoulder on!!!
Hint: As you develop a program to strengthen and limber your shoulders, it’s wise to at least receive initial help from a professional, as doing an exercise improperly can also cause pain or damage. It’s important to exercise not only the front muscles of the chest shoulder and upper arm, but to strengthen the muscles in the back of the shoulder and around the shoulder blade.
Michele Boudinot is a Credentialed Professional Gerontologist and a Certified Care Manager. She owns North Bay Eldercare Options, an eldercare consulting and care management company, and has worked with and advocated for North Bay seniors for over 30 years. You can reach her at (707) 766-6333 with any aging or eldercare questions.