Aging and SCI: 4 Steps to Staying Healthy for the Long Haul
Guest blog post by Bob Vogel
The common saying that dogs resemble their owners (or is it the other way around?) — is becoming more apparent for Schatzie — my 10-year-old German Shepherd Service dog — and me these days. At 52, — 27 years as a T10 para — my goatee is graying at the same rate as Schatzie’s muzzle at 10. In the morning, my shoulders are stiff and sore. I can tell Schatzie’s hindquarters are a bit stiff when she first steps out of her crate, stretches and comes over to my bed to give me gentle nuzzle.
Staying healthy as we age with SCI is a frequent topic of discussion among the friends that I roll with — we seem to be aging quicker than our non-disabled acquaintances. I often joke that SCI ages us in dog years. Fortunately there are steps that can help avoid this accelerated aging process — steps that friends and I were lucky to have learned in our younger days from mentors and peers, who had often learned the hard way with bodies that wore out before their time. Following this advice and sharing it has helped us stay healthy for the long haul. Here are four simple steps to help stay healthy over the long haul.
1. Stay in Motion
Newton was right, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and a body at rest, umm, doesn’t want to put down the TV remote and get up off of the couch. I spend a lot of time working at the computer which can leave me feeling lethargic, tired and/or a bit depressed — and all I want is the TV remote or a nap. Friends will remind me to go for a push, meet a friend for coffee, go for a handcycle ride. When I listen and do a social or physical activity I end up with much more energy, enthusiasm and creativity than if I had taken a nap.
Experts suggest a daily routine of 30-minutes of aerobic exercise is very important for overall health. This should be something fun and simple, like going on a 30-minute push in the chair. For me, choosing take Schatzie on a walk into town to get the mail, instead of taking the car, is relaxing and gets the endorphins moving. Another great way I grab a quick endorphin-producing workout during a busy day is by riding my handcycle on a stationary trainer for 30-45 minutes. As always, be sure to use a good cushion on the handcycle — I use a ROHO® LOW PROFILE® Dual Valve Cushion, custom made to fit my handcycle seat. In addition to more energy, the workout seems to sharpen my thoughts and helps keep me in good enough shape to enjoy weekend adventures. A good stationary trainer costs around $300 at bike shops, a little less online, and used ones at bargain prices can often be found on Craigslist.
2. Stay Trim and Light
As we age, metabolism slows down and it’s easy to put on a few extra pounds here and there until it really starts adding up. I hear stories of wheelers who put on weight that ends up causing a domino effect of problems, from shoulder trouble and pressure sores to type II diabetes. I also know wheelers that gained weight and through watching their food intake have managed loose lose it. I find keeping my weight under control is a bit easier if I check it on a scale every couple of days — if it starts to creep up I eat a bit less and try and exercise a bit more. I start by keeping an eye on my weight by transferring off of my chair onto my ROHO ADAPTOR PAD® on the bathroom floor, then transferring my butt onto the bathroom scale and lifting up my feet to check the scale. Doing this also helps me keep up my chair to floor — and back — transfer skills.
3. Keep Your Shoulders Balanced
Keep shoulders balanced. I learned this about 15 years after my injury when I had over-trained for an event and my shoulders were really hurting. I sought advice from a peer who had permanently damaged his shoulders from overuse. He explained shoulder damage is common in wheelchair users, often from overdeveloping the muscles in the front of the shoulders — which pulls the shoulders forward and out of balance. He explained the need to rest when shoulders they are sore or hurt, and do exercises — like rowing motions — to balance the back of the shoulder. He also suggested going to a sports medicine clinic and seeing a sports medicine physical therapist (PT). I took his advice, saw a Sports PT who, in turn, gave me a set of stretches and exercises that helped balance out my shoulders and over time relieved the pain. Sticking with those basic exercises and resting shoulders when they sore rather than “push through the pain” have kept them healthy — albeit a bit sore in the morning — to this day.
Anecdotally, a simple day-to-day trick to help keep shoulders in balance is get in the habit of backing your wheelchair up ramps and hills instead of pushing forward — this works the muscles in the back of the shoulders. Another way to balance shoulders is by handcycling and concentrating on the “pulling back” part of the cycle stroke and relaxing on the “pushing forward” part. For further information on ways to balance shoulders see resources.
4. Use the Proper Cushion and Do Daily Skin Checks
The most important advice I got from mentors and peers is to use the proper cushion and to continue doing the skin checks with a mirror like I was taught in rehab. Back in 1985, when I got out of rehab I was sent home on a memory foam cushion, despite asking my therapist for a ROHO Single Valve Cushion. I still remember my therapists faulty reasoning, “If I get you a ROHO you will get lazy and will rely on the cushion and won’t do as many weight shifts as you’re suppose to.” Looking back, all I can think is, “WHAT??!!” A few months out of rehab, despite constant weight shifts, an evening mirror check caught the first stage of a small pressure sore on my bony butt — I immediately got a ROHO Cushion and the sore healed. Fortunately, that was my one and only pressure sore. My skin remains healthy after 27-years (and counting) of diligently doing skin checks with a mirror every morning and evening combined with the proper cushion, a custom ROHO QUADTRO SELECT® MID PROFILE™ Cushion.
Unfortunately, I hear all too many stories of wheelers that never had a skin issue and for years had a minimal cushion and felt they didn’t have to worry about skin checks. Sadly, the story frequently changes somewhere between 10-20 years after their injury when a massive pressure sore strikes and they end up flat on their stomach in the hospital awaiting skin flap surgery — followed by months of recovery in a nursing home. I advise friends to take a few moments to check your skin with a mirror every morning and evening, along with making sure you have the proper cushion for your seating needs. That is the best insurance you can make to keep your skin healthy and avoid a pressure sore.
Stay healthy my friends!
- Aching Shoulders? Craig Hospital Guide: www.craighospital.org/repository/documents/HeathInfo/PDFs/754.AchingShoulders.NOD.pdf
- Limb Function: What You Should Know. Consumer Guide. www.PVA.org
- Shoulder Health, New Mobility Para/Medic: www.newmobility.com/articleView.cfm?id=12098&srch=shoulders
Bob Vogel, 51, is a freelance writer for the ROHO Community blog. He is a dedicated dad, adventure athlete and journalist. Bob is in his 26th year as a T10 complete para. For the past two decades he has written for New Mobility magazine and is now their Senior Correspondent. He often seeks insight and perspective from his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Schatzie, his 9-year-old German Shepherd service dog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of Bob Vogel and do not necessarily reflect the views of The ROHO Group. You can contact Bob Vogel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.