Constipation is a medical condition that occurs when patients do not have bowel movements. More than 2.5 million patients who struggle with the condition seek medical help every year. The condition is even more serious for older adults because of the complications that can arise. Anyone who has an elderly loved one or cares for a senior with constipation should learn more about the condition.
1.What is Constipation in Older Adults?
Frequent bowel movements are necessary for a healthy life. While there isn’t a standard amount that everyone should have, doctors recommend that patients have between three movements per day and three movements per week. Older adults often have fewer bowel movements because they do not eat as much.
Constipation is the name of a medical condition that occurs when an individual does not or cannot have regular bowel movements. It can impact the quality of life they have and also lead to certain complications. Senior caregivers must know more about constipation and how it compares to chronic constipation as well as what causes the condition and the best prevention and treatment options.
Chronic Constipation vs Constipation: What’s the Difference?
Anyone can suffer from constipation that goes away on its own. While some see a doctor for help, others take over-the-counter medications and eat more fiber to regulate their bowel movements.
Constipation: Acute constipation usually lasts for a few days or less and responds well to home remedies and treatments. It can occur because the patient made some lifestyle changes.
Chronic constipation: Chronic constipation is a more serious condition that lasts for a minimum of three months. Some patients continue having symptoms for a year or longer. It does not respond to most treatments and requires medical intervention. Chronic constipation also increases the risks of certain complications and can cause some serious lifestyle changes. Those who are 65 or older are more susceptible to chronic constipation as are women and older adults who do not engage in physical activities.
2. What are the Symptoms of Chronic Constipation in Older Adults?
The symptoms of constipation include having three or fewer bowel movements per week and passing stool that are lumpy and/or hard. Patients may also find that they strain when they attempt to use the bathroom and that they need help passing their stool. Some patients experience a blocked sensation as if there is an object in their bowel that stops stool from passing. Older adults may also use the bathroom but feel as though they didn’t completely evacuate their bowels.
Chronic constipation is different because it lasts for so much longer. Older adults may not want to talk with their loved ones about their experiences and suffer from symptoms that last for months or even years. A doctor cannot diagnose a patient with chronic constipation unless the individual had symptoms for a period of three months or longer. Other symptoms of chronic constipation include:
- Bloating: Many older adults struggling with constipation feel bloated. This sensation can make the stomach extend and feel hard or painful to the touch.
- Loss of Appetite: A loss of appetite often goes along with chronic constipation because the patient feels too sick to eat. When they cannot evacuate their bowels, they may not have enough room for food.
- Limited Energy: It’s also common for older adults to have less energy than they did before. They may not want to stray too far from the bathroom, too.
- Frequent Flatulence: When an older adult has chronic constipation, they can also experience frequent flatulence. The flatulence also smells quite bad.
- Mood Changes: Caregivers looking after older adults may notice some mood changes as well. While mood swings aren’t common, the individual may appear angry or irritable.
3. What are the Causes of Constipation in Older Adults?
Among the causes of chronic and acute constipation are:
- Lack of Fiber: Fiber is a necessary ingredient that both helps with digestion and gives bowel movements more heft. Older people with diets that do not have enough fiber can suffer from chronic constipation. (Important: There might be different cases where doctors may recommend older adult eats less fiber and instead, use medication that adds water to the colon to soften stool.)
- Lack of Water: Water is just as important to a healthy diet as fiber. Those who do not drink enough water can struggle with constipation as they don’t have enough liquid to force movements out of their bodies.
- Too Much Dairy: Too much dairy is one of the less common causes of chronic constipation, but it can affect those who consume a lot of milk, cheese, and similar products.
- Skipping Bowel Movements: Older people may skip bowel movements because they don’t want to spend time in the bathroom. They can also forget using the bathroom or resist using it when they should. This can lead to constipation or chronic constipation.
- Too Much Calcium: A handful of people deal with constipation because they have too much calcium in their blood. This condition often occurs among those who have cancer and other medical conditions.
- Certain Medications: Many medications have side effects, with constipation being just one of them. Iron pills are among the medications that can cause constipation. Certain antacids can as well, especially those that use aluminum or calcium.
- Digestive Issues: Seeing a doctor is important because they will need to rule out digestive issues. Irritable bowel syndrome and similar conditions often have constipation as a side effect.
- Lack of Exercise / Sedentary Lifestyle: Older adults should stay active, whether they exercise daily or spend time outside. Leading a sedentary lifestyle can cause constipation.
- Stress: Older people suffer from stress caused by their ages, families, and other issues. Stress is one of the common causes of constipation, too.
What are the Foods That Commonly Cause Constipation in Older Adults?
According to the National Institute on Aging, diet is one of the leading causes of constipation in older adults. The organization claims that older adults are more prone to the condition when they eat diets that lack fiber, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. Older people who have dentures or bad teeth often eat softer foods that do not provide them with enough fiber. Some of the other foods that cause constipation in older adults include:
- Fried Foods: Fried foods do not have as much fiber as older adults need and also have a lot of fat. Those who follow a fatty diet often suffer from chronic constipation.
- Alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to dehydration, which causes constipation. Alcoholics may suffer from chronic constipation in their twilight years, too.
- Eggs: Though eggs are generally healthy because they are a natural protein source, they do not have much fiber and often go along with meals that contain a lot of fat and empty carbs. Those who suffer from chronic constipation should cut down on their egg consumption or combine eggs with a good fiber source.
- Gluten: Many people today have a gluten intolerance, which causes side effects when they eat foods with a lot of natural gluten such as bread and pasta. Both irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease have constipation as a potential side effect.
- Sugary Foods: Sugary foods are fine in moderation but should not make up a majority of an older adult’s diet. These foods can worsen the symptoms of constipation.
- Processed Grains: Processed grains are also potentially risky because they lack the fiber that whole grains have. The processing step can also remove some of the vital minerals and vitamins.
- Milk: Milk and other dairy products often cause chronic constipation because older people are more sensitive to the proteins they contain. Switching to soy milk and other alternatives can help.
- Red Meat: Older people often eat more red meat than younger people did because it’s more familiar to them. The meats are high in fats, which take longer for the body to digest, process, and eliminate.
4. How Constipation is Treated in Older Adults
The treatment of constipation in older adults is a multiapproach one. It usually begins with a doctor’s appointment and medical history. The doctor will ask the patient if they had any symptoms that go along with constipation and if they experienced any major changes lately such as gaining weight or going through surgery. Patients also need to list any diseases or conditions that run in their families.
Tests are the next step and include lab tests to look for anemia, diabetes, and other conditions. Patients usually undergo imaging tests and a colonoscopy to rule out other diseases. Some of the treatments for constipation include:
- Self-Care: Self-care treatment options are best for older adults who have caregivers who can watch over them. They may take fiber supplements or increase their intake of fiber as well as drink more water and use laxatives.
- Surgery: Though this is a rare treatment option, surgery is a possible solution. An older adult may need surgery because of a bowel obstruction or a blockage in their intestines.
- Medication Changes: Doctors often recommend medication changes for patients who have constipation as a result of one medication or a combination of prescriptions. Patients should not stop taking any of their medications until they talk to their doctors.
- Prescription Drugs: Some prescription drugs provide relief for constipation sufferers. They usually ask the older adult to take one pill per day.
The treatment of constipation in the elderly may focuse on two goals: Reducing any side effects or symptoms that go along with the condition and helping the adult have regular bowel movements. Doctors may usually recommend that older adults get more exercise and increase their fiber intake first and then look for ways to regulate their bowels.
5. How to Prevent Constipation in Older Adults
Home remedies are among the more common methods to prevent constipation in the elderly. One remedy asks the individual’s caregiver to change their diet to help them avoid foods that lead to constipation such as processed grains, unripe bananas, cheese, and chocolate. Other top methods of preventing constipation include:
- Taking Fiber Supplements: Fiber supplements are natural products that give older adults an easy way to increase their fiber intake. Powered supplements are also available that they can mix with water or another liquid.
- Getting More Exercise: Getting more exercise can regulate the bowels and help an elderly person avoid constipation. Doctors usually recommend daily exercise such as 30 minutes of walking per day.
- Using Laxatives: Some older adults get relief from laxatives, but they should only use laxatives as a temporary treatment option. Their doctor can recommend a good laxative for them,
- Establishing a Bathroom Routine: Establishing a bathroom routine can also help because it gets the body accustomed to having a bowel movement at the same time every day. Even if the older adult cannot have a movement, trying to have one will help.
6. What are the Best Foods for Constipation in Older Adults?
Emma Slattery of Johns Hopkins found that fiber is one of the key ways to relieve constipation. Slattery is a licensed dietitian who claims that older adults can benefit from soluble forms of fiber that break down in the stomach to create a gel that adds heft to bowel movements. Whole grains, oatmeal, and many different fruits and vegetables are high in soluble fiber.
She also recommends Prunes because they are high in sorbitol, which is a type of sugar alcohol. As the stomach cannot digest the substance, it tries to get rid of it as soon as possible. One serving of prunes can help an older adult have a bowel movement within a few hours or less. Apple juice also contains sorbitol but in a lower dose. Drinking apple juice can force a bowel movement, but it will take longer. Slattery encourages those struggling with constipation to also increase their water intake.
There are other foods that also rank as the best foods for constipation, including:
- Apples: A medium apple with the skin intact has nearly five grams of fiber, which is nearly 20% of the daily recommended amount. Pears have nearly the same amount of fiber.
- Artichokes: Artichokes promote healthy bacteria in the stomach and digestive system, which makes them a good choice for adults with constipation. A single serving has up to 10 grams of fiber.
- Figs: Both fresh and dried figs are a natural fiber source. They also have a sweet taste that can curb cravings and work in both savory and sweet dishes.
- Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes are also a good option for constipation sufferers because the vegetable has insoluble fiber that adds bulk and heft to bowel movements. Eating seven ounces or more per day can help.
- Leafy Greens: Leafy greens are among the best foods for constipation because they have so much fiber as well as vitamins and minerals. Older adults can eat raw leafy greens in salads or smoothies and cook the greens down.
7. How Caregivers Can Help a Senior Loved One with Constipation
The children and grandchildren as well as other loved ones often stay at home to watch over their seniors. They can use some helpful tips to make caring for someone with constipation a little easier.
- Create a Plan: Caregivers should create a plan to both prevent and treat constipation in their senior loved ones. This usually includes looking at ways to follow a digestion friendly-diet, drink enough water and keep track of their bowel movements. Caregivers should also keep track of any medications the older people take and make note of any side effects they experience after changing their medications.
- Follow a Routine: Other ways they can help include both setting and following a routine. Older adults often need help getting to the bathroom. Their caregivers can help them make it to the bathroom in time and remind them to go the bathroom regularly. Caregivers will also want to make sure that the person sits upright as this is the optimum position for evacuating the bowels.
- Consider Immediate Solutions: Immediate solutions are home remedies that work right away to relieve pain and discomfort. Caregivers can try different solutions such as suppositories and enemas. Rectal suppositories go right in the rectum and contain ingredients that help the bowels move. Water enemas use hot water to clear out the bowels and work within minutes. Caregivers can also try over-the-counter laxatives.
- Know When to See a Doctor: Knowing when to see and talk to a doctor is one of the best things caregivers can do. They should consult a doctor when exercise and other remedies do not work, the senior loses a lot of weight, or the person has blood in their stool.