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  • APT Staff

Regain Your Freedom: Geriatric Physical Therapy Benefits for Improved Mobility As You Age 


Introduction to Geriatric Physical Therapy  Benefits


Geriatric physical therapy is a specialization within physical therapy that focuses on working with seniors to optimize their movement, mobility, and independence as they age. Physical therapists who work with the elderly population are experts in evaluating age-related changes and creating personalized treatment plans to address patients' goals. 


The techniques used in geriatric physical therapy aim to improve strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and endurance. Treatment plans are tailored to each patient's needs and abilities and may include exercises, manual therapy, education, assistive devices, and lifestyle modifications. Aquatic therapy in heated pools is also commonly used. 


The benefits of geriatric physical therapy are extensive. It can help seniors maintain or improve mobility, reduce pain, prevent falls and injuries, overcome limitations from chronic conditions, regain independence in daily tasks, and remain socially engaged and active. Physical therapy promotes healthy aging, allowing older adults to participate in their preferred hobbies and activities. It improves quality of life and allows seniors to stay in their homes safely for as long as possible. 


Common Age-Related Mobility Issues  

As we age, various factors can contribute to decreased mobility and independence. Some of the most common age-related mobility issues include: 




Arthritis is inflammation of the joints that causes stiffness, pain, and swelling. Osteoarthritis is the most prevalent form of arthritis among older adults. It occurs when the cartilage protecting the joints wears down over time, allowing the bones to rub together. This causes pain, swelling, and decreased range of motion. Arthritis can make everyday tasks like walking, climbing stairs, or bending over difficult. 




Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by low bone mineral density and deterioration of bone tissue. This makes the bones brittle and susceptible to fractures. Fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist are most common with osteoporosis. The resulting pain and disability from these fractures can greatly impact mobility. 


Muscle Loss 


Muscle mass naturally declines with age. Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle mass, strength, and function. Less muscle means less power for movement and physical activity. Weakened muscles can increase risk of falls and make it harder to do routine physical tasks. 


Balance and Coordination 

Many older adults struggle with balance and coordination issues. Declines in vision, vestibular function, proprioception, and motor control contribute to these problems. Diminished balance increases fall risk. Poor coordination makes movements like walking, transferring from a chair, or manipulating objects more challenging. This negatively impacts mobility and independence. 


Improving Strength and Flexibility 


As we age, it’s common to lose muscle mass and joint flexibility. This can make everyday activities like getting up from a chair, climbing stairs, or reaching for objects more challenging. Geriatric physical therapy can help improve strength and flexibility through targeted exercises. 


Resistance Training 


Resistance training is key for building muscle mass and strength. Weight machines, resistance bands, free weights, or even your own body weight can provide resistance. A physical therapist can recommend exercises to target specific muscle groups like arms, legs, back, abdominals, etc. They'll ensure proper form to prevent injury. Typically 2-3 sessions per week are recommended. 




Stretching keeps muscles and joints flexible, reducing stiffness. A physical therapist will prescribe stretches for problem areas like hips, hamstrings, chest, shoulders, etc. They'll teach how to stretch correctly without overextending. Stretches can be done daily at home to maintain flexibility. 


Range of Motion Exercises 

  The physical therapist will have the patient perform gentle exercises take each joint through its full range of motion. This maintains mobility and function. They'll provide tips like moving through the available range slowly and smoothly. Range of motion exercises can be done regularly to preserve joint health. 


With guidance from a physical therapist, seniors can improve strength and flexibility. This allows them to perform regular activities and live more independently. A customized program helps rebuild declining muscle and joint function. 


Balance and Coordination Exercises 


As we age, it becomes increasingly important to maintain and improve balance and coordination. This helps prevent falls, which can lead to fractures and other injuries. Geriatric physical therapists have a number of techniques to help with balance and coordination: 


Tai Chi 


Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that focuses on slow, graceful movements and deep breathing. Studies have shown that practicing tai chi improves balance and proprioception (awareness of body position) in older adults. The physical therapist may recommend specific tai chi exercises or form sequences to improve mobility. 


Agility Training 


Agility training uses various exercises like stepping over obstacles, walking on uneven surfaces, dodging objects, and changing directions quickly. These all challenge and improve dynamic balance. The physical therapist will tailor the agility training to the individual's needs and abilities. 


Vestibular Rehabilitation 


The vestibular system includes the inner ear and brain sections responsible for balance. As we age, this system can deteriorate. Vestibular rehabilitation aims to retrain the vestibular system through exercises. These may involve head turns, eye movements, balance challenges, and walking tasks. Vestibular rehab can significantly reduce dizziness and improve stability. 


Regularly performing balance and coordination exercises recommended by a geriatric physical therapist can help older adults confidently navigate their daily activities and environments. It also reduces the likelihood of debilitating or even fatal falls. 


Assistive Devices 


Mobility assistive devices such as canes, walkers, and wheelchairs can help older adults maintain their independence and reduce fall risk. These devices provide additional support, stability, and balance for those experiencing age-related mobility issues. 




Canes transfer weight from the lower body to the upper body. They provide stability and take pressure off of sore joints when walking. Canes come in many sizes and materials to accommodate the user's height and needs. It's important to be properly fitted for a cane and receive training from a physical therapist on how to correctly walk with it. Using a cane on the side opposite of the weaker leg provides the most support. 




Walkers offer more support than canes by distributing upper body weight across a larger surface area. Two-wheeled walkers with glides allow the user to slide it forward and just use their leg muscles to propel it along. There are also four-wheeled walkers that can be pushed ahead without lifting. Some walkers come with seats, baskets, and adjustable heights. Physical therapists can recommend the right type of walker and provide safety guidelines. Regular practice walking with a walker can prevent dangerous falls. 




Wheelchairs give mobility to those unable to walk safely or distances. Standard manual wheelchairs require the user to propel themselves using the wheel rings. Power wheelchairs use battery power to move via joystick, chin control, head controls, or puff/sip controls. Your physical therapist and doctor will help select the right wheelchair and size based on your needs, environment, arm and hand strength, and body measurements. Learning to properly use and do daily tasks with a wheelchair takes practice but provides freedom. 


Home Modifications for Safety 


As we age, our homes can present safety hazards that contribute to falls and injuries. An important part of a geriatric physical therapy program is evaluating the home environment and suggesting modifications to support mobility and independence. 


One of the most useful home modifications for the elderly is installing grab bars and railings in key locations. Grab bars provide stability when transitioning between positions, such as getting in and out of the bathtub. Properly installed grab bars can support up to 250 pounds of weight. Strategic placement of grab bars includes: 


  • Inside and outside showers 

  • On both sides of toilets 

  • Next to beds 

  • On stairways 


Railings serve a similar purpose on stairs, ramps, and hallways. Having railings to hold provides confidence and stability when moving about the home. 


Another home modification for safety is improving lighting. As we age, we need brighter lighting to see clearly. Increase lighting in entryways, bathrooms, bedrooms, and staircases by using higher wattage bulbs or adding more lighting fixtures. Night lights along hallways and in bathrooms can also help prevent falls at night. Installing light switches at the top and bottom of stairs is another good safety measure. 


With some simple grab bars, railings, and improved lighting, geriatric physical therapists can make homes safer. This allows the elderly to confidently perform daily activities and remain independent. 


Aquatic Therapy 


Aquatic therapy, also known as water therapy or pool therapy, is an excellent way for older adults to improve mobility and physical functioning. Aquatic therapy takes place in a pool, usually with water temperature around 92°F to maximize comfort and benefit. 


Water provides warmth, gentle resistance, buoyancy, and hydrostatic pressure that together make movement easier and less painful for aging bodies. The water supports body weight, reducing stress on the joints and muscles. This allows for movement and strengthening exercises that may be difficult on land. Water also provides a cushioning effect that makes falls less likely and less hazardous. 


Some of the main aquatic therapy techniques for seniors include: 


  • Water Aerobics - Water aerobics incorporates cardio exercise and strength training routines while immersed chest or shoulder deep in the pool. Special classes are often available for seniors or those with limited mobility. Water aerobics improves cardiovascular health, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and balance.    

  • Swimming - Swimming engages all the major muscle groups for a total body workout. The water provides resistance on the muscles while being easy on the joints. Swimming laps, or doing water walking back and forth across the pool, improves cardio endurance.    

  • Aquatic Equipment - Hand paddles, kickboards, foam dumbbells, pool noodles, and other equipment can be used during water therapy to increase or decrease resistance and difficulty. These tools help strengthen specific muscle groups while minimizing strain. 


With guidance from a physical therapist, an aquatic therapy program can help seniors gain strength, balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness in a safe, low-impact environment. The soothing properties of water therapy may also reduce pain and stiffness in aging bodies. 


Lifestyle Changes for Improved Mobility 


Maintaining mobility and independence as we age requires making smart lifestyle choices. Here are some ways older adults can support mobility through daily habits and routines: 


Healthy Diet 

Eating a nutritious diet helps preserve muscle strength, bone health, and overall energy levels for staying active. Key dietary recommendations include: 


  • Getting adequate protein from sources like eggs, lean meats, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy. This provides the building blocks to maintain muscle mass.    

  • Consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which supply important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. These support bone strength and general health.    

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Dehydration can contribute to dizziness, weakness, and fatigue.    

  • Limiting processed foods, salt, sugar, and saturated fats, which can lead to obesity and associated health problems. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces stress on the joints. 


Quitting Smoking 


Smoking affects circulation, lung function, and bone health in ways that accelerate mobility decline. By quitting, older adults can slow the progression of arthritis and osteoporosis while optimizing physical abilities. Consult a doctor for smoking cessation strategies. 


Managing Medications 


It's important to take medications only as prescribed and be aware of potential side effects. Some drugs like sedatives, tranquilizers, or diuretics can cause dizziness or electrolyte imbalances leading to cramping and weakness. Have a doctor or pharmacist review all medications to minimize interactions and negative effects. 



As we age, it's common for mobility to decline. However, there are times when it's especially important to seek help from a geriatric physical therapist: 


After Illness, Injury, or Surgery 


  • Illnesses like pneumonia, flu, injuries from falls, and surgeries like hip or knee replacements can greatly impact mobility in older adults. Bed rest and inactivity from these setbacks can cause rapid loss of muscle mass and joint mobility. 

  • A physical therapist can help safely rebuild strength and range of motion through customized exercise programs after illness, injury or surgery. They also teach techniques for getting in and out of bed, proper use of assistive devices, and how to avoid future injuries. 



With General Mobility Decline 


  • Aging can gradually lead to decreased muscle mass, joint stiffness, poor balance and coordination. This often results in difficulty with standing, walking, and safely performing daily activities. 

  • Seeking physical therapy at the first signs of mobility decline can help. Exercise programs tailored to individual abilities help improve strength, flexibility, balance and coordination. Therapists also advise on assistive devices and home modifications to improve safety and independence. 


The key is to seek help at the first sign of declining mobility, before falls or injuries occur. A customized physical therapy program can help older adults remain independent and active for years longer. 




Geriatric physical therapy can significantly improve mobility and independence for older adults. The techniques covered in this article, including strength training, balance exercises, assistive devices, home modifications, aquatic therapy, and lifestyle changes, are all evidence-based ways to enhance physical functioning in later life. 


While age-related changes like decreased flexibility, muscle weakness, and impaired balance can threaten mobility, geriatric physical therapy provides tools to counteract these effects. Strength training, even into advanced age, can combat sarcopenia and the loss of muscle mass. Balance exercises retrain the vestibular system and improve coordination. Assistive devices like canes and walkers allow older adults to ambulate safely. Home modifications like installing grab bars in showers reduce fall risks. Aquatic therapy provides gentle resistance training. Lifestyle changes like managing medications, vision, footwear, and hydration optimize physical abilities. 


Seeking input from a physical therapist specializing in geriatrics ensures older adults receive customized exercise programs for their unique needs and limitations. Setting mobility goals and regularly assessing progress helps motivate continued participation in therapy. Most importantly, maintaining movement and independence enhances quality of life. Geriatric physical therapy promotes healthy aging, keeps older adults active, and allows them to enjoy their golden years to the fullest. 


Ready to enhance your mobility and independence? Call us today to schedule your personalized geriatric physical therapy consultation!

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