Help a Parent Deal with Chronic Pain

Living with chronic pain is exhausting and can feel overwhelming quickly. However, as a caregiver with tools at your disposal, there are many options you can share with your parent to mitigate pain and experience a higher quality of life.

For many older adults, chronic pain is a daily challenge to overcome. According to research published in The British Medical Journal, pain is one of the most common concerns people over the age of 65 bring to their doctors. Chronic pain is a worldwide issue for older adults and can cause a variety of other concerns such as decreased mobility, depression, or increased fall risk.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is pain that lasts for months or years without consistent relief. While older adults do report pain while visiting their doctors, a report from The Ochsner Journal suggests that a majority of seniors may not report their pain, as they falsely believe constant pain is a normal part of aging (it’s not).

Older adults can experience chronic pain for a variety of reasons, or a combination of circumstances. For example, seniors living with chronic medical conditions like osteoarthritis can experience chronic pain in their joints. Other older adults who have decreased mobility can also experience chronic pain in their joints when they move, though it is not caused by arthritis. Seniors can suffer with chronic pain due to complications from diabetes or amputations, from side effects due to cancer or medications, and even from mental health conditions like major depression. In any case, people living with chronic pain need support with safety, movement, and hope as they navigate ways to manage it.

Encourage Reporting

If most seniors are thought to underreport their own chronic pain, your loved one may be brushing off their own pain concerns. Talking about pain, especially onset and relief strategies, is important to do at each doctor appointment. You can help by reporting pain to the geriatrician by keeping a pain log in a notebook. If able, your loved one can rate their pain on a scale of 1-10 three times each day, around meals, in the log. If physical or cognitive issues make this impossible for independent reporting, you can help by asking about pain when you talk to your loved one. Write down their complaints each time. These logs are beneficial for doctors to review at each appointment.

Encourage Safety

Chronic pain often goes hand in hand with medication regimens meant to bring relief. However, having extra medications in the home can sometimes lead to unsafe situations for older adults. Help your loved one stay safe by implementing medication management tools that are geared to their specific abilities and challenges. Ask for easy open bottles from the pharmacy if pain or arthritis makes a traditional safety top too difficult to manage. You can also set alarms as reminders to take specific medications. A consistent schedule is key for medication management, and you can set up medications ahead of time in a pill box to decrease the chance of taking too much (or not enough). If medication management is proving to be too much of a task for your situation, consider hiring a professional caregiver to assist with daily medication management.

Even the most thorough medication management plan can have its faults. It is wise to brush up on your knowledge of medication abuse or misuse, especially if there are opioids or other strong pain medications in your loved one’s home. Follow up with the doctor if there are any acute changes in personality or memory, as well as if there are any signs of withdrawal, like tremors or nausea. If you suspect there could be abuse or misuse from the pain medications, be honest with your loved one and their doctor about your concerns. There are safe ways to stay pain free while avoiding triggers for substance abuse.

Finally, assure you are noting any signs of depression. For those living with chronic pain, isolation and depression are often side effects of their pain. For seniors, isolation can be especially harmful for cognitive function, and depression can increase the chance of medication misuse. Talk to your loved one’s doctor if you are worried about depression or isolation. Note any signs of depression, such as disrupted sleep patterns, unexplained cuts or bruises, or sudden disinterest in hobbies.

Encourage Movement

For many people living with chronic pain, movement can feel impossible. However, in an ironic twist, regular movement often provides relief from pain. Regular exercise, no matter how gentle, can improve range of motion and decrease pain for most older adults. Getting your loved one moving can feel like a challenge, but if you are able to encourage that healthy movement and point out the benefits, your chances of getting them out of their chair increase.

Before beginning any exercise program, talk to your loved one’s doctor. The physician can provide any suggestions to get started, as well as any precautions to keep in mind. After you get the doctor’s blessing for regular movement, assure your loved one has the gear required for safety. Non-skid and well-fitting tennis shoes are a great start, as are any braces or supports that can make movement more efficient and pain free.

Search for exercise programs that are designed for their specific condition. For example, the Arthritis Association has certified trainers throughout the world who lead aquatic and land-based exercise to increase range of motion in joints for those living with the condition. You can also find classes geared towards those living with Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and more. These are wonderful movement opportunities, as well as chances to socialize with peers living with the same challenges.

You can also find wonderful guidance from Physical and Occupational Therapists that specialize in senior care. Ask the doctor for a referral to an outpatient clinic nearby. Your therapist will work with your loved one weekly, as well as give instructions for exercises to complete at home. Even after sessions at the therapy clinic cease, your loved one will have the confidence to keep up the exercises at home.

Finally, pain can be a powerful deterrent to beginning exercise. To combat this, experiment with using over the counter pain relievers an hour before movement starts. This tactic can reduce the pain and increase the chances of attending the exercise class. You can also look for exercise opportunities that are low impact, making the movement more pain free. Aquatic exercise classes or slow walking are great places to start.

Encourage Hope

Living with chronic pain is exhausting and can feel overwhelming quickly. As you support your loved one, don’t forget to encourage an optimistic and hopeful outlook. Try ending your visits by asking for one thing they are thankful for or asking about one good thing that happened that day before you end your phone call. These small acknowledgements can do wonders.

You can also encourage and facilitate socialization opportunities. Drive your loved one to an event at the local senior center or plan a coffee date for a few of their friends. Socialization with peers can decrease feelings of perceived loneliness and even decrease depression. Support groups for older adults, or for adults living with the same conditions, is another positive step for chronic pain management.

Together, you and your loved one can find the best ways to live with chronic pain. You can find the resources and support that works best for your specific situation and get relief.

  • Kaye, A. D., Baluch, A., & Scott, J. T. (2010). Pain Management in the Elderly Population: A Review. The Ochsner Journal10(3), 179–187.
  • Reid, M. C., Eccleston, C., & Pillemer, K. (2015). Management of chronic pain in older adults. The BMJ350, h532.
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