Aging With A Spinal Cord Injury

3.5.2016
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Let’s face it – everyone gets older. And with aging, our bodies and minds change. People with spinal cord injuries know this all too well.

Curtis, a quadriplegic, is concerned about aging with a spinal cord injury. What is going to happen to his body? Are there measures he can take to keep his body and mind as healthy as possible?

“This is my 18th year in a chair, and I’m starting to freak out about what my next 20 years will be like.”

Despite Curtis’ active lifestyle, he knows he has to be careful when it comes to aging with a spinal cord injury. “If I don’t take care of myself, I could end up with all sorts of medical, personal issues,” shares Curtis. Curtis spoke with four other spinal cord injury survivors, each of whom have also been injured for 18+ years to see what changes they’ve encountered as they age with their injuries, and what advice they have to continue to live healthy lifestyles with SCI.

Maximizing Independence

At 1:35, we meet Grant who has been injured for more than 30 years, and the biggest change for him has happened just in the last couple years. Grant used to push himself in a manual chair, but because of the loss of general strength, Grant now uses a power wheelchair and relies more heavily on the assistance of his partner Harriet for things like dressing and transferring from the bed to the chair.

“It’s a fact that a spinal cord injury combined with normal aging means the body wears out faster.” 

Because of Grant’s decline in mobility, he became unable to manually transfer to his old vehicle. Fortunately, the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) in New Zealand funded a new vehicle with a ramp that allows Grant to enter the vehicle and glide into the driver’s seat without leaving his wheelchair.

Managing Skin Issues

At 5:38, we meet Sholto, who has been injured for 18 years, like Curtis. In fact, Sholto and Curtis both played wheelchair rugby competitively, and still train vigorously for their sport. But Sholto has recently been laid up, quite literally, from a transfer gone wrong that produced a small cut on his backside. At first, it was minor. Sholto decided to push through and continue his rugby training regimen, which turned out to be a bad decision for healing. The wound became infected and forced Sholto to bedrest.

Pressure sores are always a concern for people with SCI, but as bodies age, skin becomes thinner and fat cells are lost. This makes pressure sores even more difficult to heal. “If I’d taken maybe 2 or 3 days out of my training regime,” says Sholto, “I probably could’ve healed it up.” Unfortunately, Sholto learned the hard way about how fast pressure sores can get out of hand. But with proper care and vigilance, Sholto says, “I see no reason why I’m not going to be in the wheelchair at retirement age.”

Managing Spine Issues

At 9:10, we meet Tiffany, who has also been injured for 18 years. Tiffany has remained incredibly physically active since her injury, and has represented New Zealand in both wheelchair tennis and handcycling. Tiffany believes the key to aging well with SCI is maintaining flexibility and upper body strength to continue to do things like transfer into cars, and in and out of bed.

Still, with all of the physical activity Tiffany maintains, she developed scoliosis, a condition that affects half of the adult wheelchair population. “My scoliosis gives me a little bit of a worry,” admits Tiffany. But with her physical lifestyle, she is confident it’s something she can manage well into advanced age.

Maintaining Mental Health

At 12:20, we meet Gabrielle, who has been in a wheelchair for an astonishing 39 years! Before Gabrielle was injured, the life expectancy for someone with a spinal cord injury was only 15 years. Gabrielle has defied those odds in a big way, and has credited teaching as what has kept her healthy and thriving. “I think it is the fact that I’m mobile and I think that must have an effect on your well being,” shares Gabrielle, who says the last 39 years have gone by in a flash. She also credits mental stimulation as another contributing factor to her good health. “I enjoy the collegiality of the teachers at the school here,” says Gabrielle. “But most of all just the children.”

These four SCI survivors have proved that even with some setbacks, aging well with a spinal cord injury is possible!

What are your secrets for aging well? Share them with us, and you might be featured on AbleThrive!

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