“When you get to my age, many people have big health issues like cancer or heart conditions to deal with,” says Roger Thomas, 83, of Pinehurst. “But this time of life is also supposed to be the Golden Years. So when you can do something about stuff that makes you uncomfortable or even embarrassed, you ought to do it.”
For Thomas, that meant getting help for incontinence. Incontinence is the leaking of urine or feces (bowels.) And Thomas is ready to be a champion of the cause because of how staff at FirstHealth Home Care improved his life.
When he speaks about “big health issues,” Thomas knows what he’s talking about. Working with physicians at FirstHealth, he’s had two victories over cancer. And with age, he’s lost much of his sight. Perhaps due to prostate cancer, he began having “urge incontinence.” That’s when the body suddenly sends signals that you need to use the bathroom – and immediately.
“I’m not as nimble as I once was, so running to the bathroom wasn’t an option,” he jokes. “Wet britches were the result.” He also found himself getting up six to eight times every night to use the bathroom. And on occasion, he also had bowel incontinence, or leaking of feces. “It’s all as frustrating as heck,” he says. “Those two issues combined can make a recluse out of you pretty quickly.”
But the jovial gentleman wasn’t about to let these problems keep him in the house. “I don’t get out as much anymore, and I really look forward to going to church,” he says. “I didn’t want anything to keep me from doing that.”
During a visit by staff of FirstHealth Home Care, of which he was a patient of, he shared his concerns. Staff connected him with occupational therapist, Elizabeth Merrill.
“Many people think incontinence is something you should expect as you get older,” says Elizabeth Merrill, a FirstHealth occupational therapist who works with the incontinence program at FirstHealth Home Care. “And many do not know about the range of simple treatments that can help. We want people to know that incontinence is not inevitable, and it’s not a normal part of aging. It’s not something you have to live with.”
It’s also not something people should ignore, she says. Incontinence can lead to falls and related injuries, and to poor sleep. It’s also linked to urinary tract infections (UTIs.) And like Thomas’s concern, it can make people avoid social situations and activities outside the home. That, in turn, can lead to isolation and depression.
“Many of our patients have greatly improved their lives by getting the right treatment for incontinence,” Merrill says. “Often, small changes sometimes can make a big difference, very quickly.”
For Thomas, a combination of exercise, education and other small changes have helped him avoid the problems and embarrassment of incontinence. Over the course of about three months, Merrill met with him in his home weekly. She reviewed exercises to help him improve muscle strength and information about foods and drink that can improve both urinary and fecal incontinence.
“Some of the things she told me were things I knew, but didn’t really connect them with incontinence,” he says. And some of the “small things” involved changes in habits. “Changing habits isn’t easy,” he says. “When you’ve depended on your natural body to tell you when you need to go to the bathroom, and now you need to setup a schedule for it, that can be hard to keep up.”
With the personal plan he created with Merrill, Thomas has had excellent results. He used to get up at night six or more times, and he now reports he’s been able to cut that in half. “I sleep more soundly now, and my dog, Katie, does too,” he jokes. Perhaps most important to him, church on Sundays remains a regular activity.
“I like to get out and go,” he says. “I feel blessed that I had Elizabeth to work with me, so I can. And I want others to know they don’t need to suffer the indignation of incontinence, when there’s so much that can be done.”
Feature photo: Elizabeth Merrill, FirstHealth Occupational Therapist.