Between death, illness, aging, and the need to be taken care of, it’s not uncommon for seniors to experience symptoms of depression — though they may be hesitant to admit this due to the stigma of mental illness or fear of being labeled as weak or unstable. On the flip side, there are approximately 43.5 million unpaid caregivers in America, and while looking after a loved one is a generous gift, the physical and emotional stress of the day-to-day routine can cause caregivers to become depressed, lonely, and angry.
Along with feeling blue, another commonality between the elderly and caretakers is lack of self-care, which includes addressing physical and mental health. One of the easiest ways both parties can address these issues is to incorporate yoga into their lives.
The benefits of yoga for seniors are similar to those in other age brackets, as it’s a malleable activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, physical abilities, and needs. When practiced regularly, participants can expect improved posture and increased balance (key for preventing falls), muscle tone, strength, and mood. Not to mention, breathing exercises (pranayama) can help increase lung capacity.
While yoga can be a serious stress-buster and help improve sleep, it’s important to note that those effects are cumulative and require consistency in order to experience results. Beginners should start with a simple and gentle hatha style, as it’s a great way to learn the basic poses along with meditation, breathing, and mindfulness techniques. Seniors with serious mobility issues can still experience benefits with chair yoga, an adaptive form of the practice. Daily stretching is also a key habit that can ease tension, stress, pain, and stiffness — especially for those suffering from arthritis.
Along with all of the above, yoga can help caregivers avoid burnout and regain a sense of empowerment. It can be helpful to incorporate positive affirmations into one’s practice — studies have shown that this can be as effective as therapy.
Set Up a Dedicated Space for Your Practice
Most pros will tell you that the best way to learn yoga is via an in-person class (especially when avoiding injury is concerned), but that may not be a realistic option for all seniors and their caretakers. Instead, creating a place within the home can make it easy to practice together or individually. High-traffic areas filled with distractions should be avoided at all costs. A room with a decent amount of natural light is best, and while there shouldn’t be any clutter (it’s both a hazard and a distraction), incorporating objects as focal points (think a statue of a Buddha) can be helpful when transitioning from pose to pose.
Providing there aren’t any allergies or breathing issues, aromatherapy is a great compliment to any space, as it has the power to naturally energize or de-stress one’s mind. Props such as a mat, blocks, and strap are essential, as is keeping all equipment clean after use. While an instructional app or DVD can’t replace an instructor, it’s a good idea to use these tools to prevent injury while getting the most out of each session — even if it’s only a few minutes each day. Poses that cause pain or irritate a specific mobility or health issue should be avoided.
Along with the act of yoga itself, caregiving can be considered its own practice. For example, exercising gratitude, knowing when to rest, seeking spaciousness, setting limits, and listening to one’s body. Nailing these feelings and emotions doesn’t come overnight, so it’s important to exercise patience when practicing yoga of any kind.
Harry Cline is creator of NewCaregiver.org and author of the upcoming book, The A-Z Home Care Handbook: Health Management How-Tos for Senior Caregivers. As a retired nursing home administrator, father of three, and caregiver to his ninety-year-old uncle, Harry knows how challenging and rewarding caregiving can be. He also understands that caregiving is often overwhelming for those just starting out. He created his website and is writing his new book to offer new caregivers everywhere help and support.