Incontinence: A Silent Struggle Affecting Millions - What to Prepare for When it Affects You or a Loved One

As people age, they may experience incontinence due to a variety of health factors, including chronic illness, mobility issues, and frailty. Addressing incontinence is essential to ensure a good quality of life and reduce the impact on both the individual and their loved ones.

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Incontinence: A Silent Struggle Affecting Millions - What to Prepare for When it Affects You or a Loved One
9 Min Read May 10th, 2023

It's a topic often whispered about in hushed tones, but incontinence is a reality that affects millions of individuals worldwide. A deeply personal and often stigmatized condition, incontinence can have a profound impact on those who experience it, as well as their families and caregivers. As we delve into the world of incontinence, we aim to shed light on this often-misunderstood issue, revealing its prevalence and exploring how it touches the lives of so many people.

Incontinence, broadly defined as the involuntary loss of bladder or bowel control, affects individuals across all age groups and walks of life. According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million people globally suffer from urinary incontinence, while millions more struggle with fecal incontinence. Both conditions can significantly impact an individual's quality of life, from affecting their self-esteem and emotional well-being to creating social and practical challenges.

As the global population continues to age, incontinence is becoming an increasingly pressing concern for older individuals and their caregivers. The risk of developing incontinence increases with age, with factors such as weakened pelvic muscles, hormonal changes, and age-related health issues contributing to its onset. As a result, the elderly are disproportionately affected by this condition, which can significantly impact their lives and those of their caregivers.

Making Age-Related Challenges More Difficult

For seniors grappling with incontinence, the condition can exacerbate existing age-related challenges, such as limited mobility and cognitive decline. In addition to the practical implications of managing incontinence, the emotional toll can be considerable. Many older individuals experience feelings of embarrassment, shame, and frustration, which can erode their self-confidence and sense of autonomy. This emotional strain can lead to a decline in mental well-being, with anxiety and depression becoming more prevalent among those dealing with incontinence.

The numbers are staggering, but they only tell part of the story. For those living with incontinence, the condition permeates every aspect of their daily lives. The fear of accidents can lead to social isolation, as individuals may avoid activities or gatherings where they're unsure of restroom access or worry about the potential for embarrassment. Furthermore, the burden of managing incontinence — from purchasing and changing absorbent products to coping with the emotional toll — can be overwhelming for both the affected individuals and their caregivers.

By bringing incontinence into the open, we hope to foster greater understanding and support for those living with this life-altering condition. 

Managing incontinence can be challenging at first. Incontinence can be a vexing issue that numerous seniors face. Thankfully, it is often manageable and, in some cases, reversible. Nonetheless, adapting to incontinence requires making certain adjustments. To help you navigate this condition more effectively, here's a list of essential items and preparations to consider.

Adjusting Your Drinking Habits

Upon realizing you or a loved one has incontinence, you might be inclined to decrease your fluid intake. However, this is not the optimal approach. Surprisingly, consuming around two liters of fluids per day can be more beneficial.

By doing so, you ensure your urine does not become overly concentrated, which could lead to urinary tract infections (UTIs), particularly if you use a catheter. Instead, focus on reducing your consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and citrus-based drinks, as these ingredients can exacerbate your incontinence symptoms.

Wearing Incontinence Protection

Adjusting to incontinence involves becoming familiar with protective products, such as catheters or incontinence briefs. While these options function differently, both effectively safeguard against leaks, allowing you to choose the one that suits your preferences.

It may take some time to acclimate to either form of protection, as they may initially feel uncomfortable. However, as you become more accustomed to wearing them, their presence will become less noticeable. Soon enough, you may even forget you're wearing them.

Handling Skin Irritation

Regardless of whether you or a loved one opts for incontinence briefs or catheters, skin irritation is a potential concern. Often, this issue arises due to inadequate hygiene, although germs can be stubborn and affect anyone.

Skin irritation, particularly in those using incontinence briefs, is commonly referred to as diaper rash. Nevertheless, numerous ways to treat adult diaper rash are available irrespective of the protective product you choose. Diligence and proper care are essential when addressing this issue.

Improving Bladder Function

It is important to prepare for the measures you or a loved one will need to implement in order to enhance bladder function and potentially resolve incontinence. There are two primary techniques for achieving this.

The first method involves pelvic floor exercises, also known as Kegel exercises. These workouts aim to strengthen the pelvic muscles responsible for bladder control. As these muscles become stronger, you should experience improved control over your urge to urinate.

The second technique is bladder training. This approach entails monitoring restroom usage frequency and gradually increasing the intervals between visits. If executed correctly, you can teach your bladder to retain urine for longer durations, effectively addressing incontinence issues.

Surgical Options

Incontinence can be a distressing issue for older adults, but there are several surgical options available to address the various forms of incontinence. These procedures aim to alleviate symptoms, improve bladder control, and enhance the quality of life for patients. 

Dr. Sandip Vasavada, a urologist and specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at Cleveland Clinic, emphasizes the importance of seeking medical treatment for incontinence. 

It is important not to be embarrassed about it and to seek help. Incontinence is not a normal part of aging, and there are many treatment options available.

One common surgical option for stress urinary incontinence (SUI), which is the involuntary leakage of urine during physical activities like coughing, sneezing, or exercise, is the mid-urethral sling procedure. During this procedure, a synthetic mesh tape is inserted through a small incision in the vaginal wall and positioned under the urethra. The sling provides support to the urethra and helps prevent urine leakage during physical exertion.

Another surgical procedure for stress incontinence is the Burch colposuspension. This surgery involves lifting and securing the neck of the bladder and the urethra to nearby pelvic structures with sutures. By repositioning these structures, the procedure enhances urethral support and helps prevent urine leakage during physical activity.

For urge incontinence or overactive bladder (OAB), sacral nerve stimulation (SNS) can be an effective surgical option. SNS involves the implantation of a small device, similar to a pacemaker, under the skin of the buttock. This device sends electrical impulses to the sacral nerves, which control the bladder and the muscles used for urination. The stimulation can help regulate bladder function and reduce the symptoms of urge incontinence.

Another option for those with severe urge incontinence or OAB is the injection of botulinum toxin (Botox) into the bladder muscle. This minimally invasive procedure can help relax the bladder muscle, increase its capacity, and reduce the frequency of contractions that cause urgency and leakage.

Finally, for men who experience incontinence due to an enlarged prostate or following prostate surgery, an artificial urinary sphincter can be implanted. 

Dr. Ajay K. Singla, a urologist, and specialist at the University of Toledo, emphasizes the effectiveness of the artificial urinary sphincter (AUS) in addressing incontinence. In an article published on the American Urological Association (AUA) website, he states:

"Artificial urinary sphincter is considered the gold standard for the treatment of post-radical prostatectomy stress incontinence in men. The success rate is very high and more than 90% of patients are satisfied with the results."

This device consists of a cuff that encircles the urethra, a balloon reservoir, and a pump that the patient can manually operate. The cuff keeps the urethra closed until the patient activates the pump, which temporarily deflates the cuff and allows urine to flow.

It is crucial to note that the choice of surgery will depend on the individual patient's needs, the type and severity of incontinence, and the underlying cause. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the most suitable surgical option for each person's specific situation.

Fecal incontinence, or the inability to control bowel movements, can be a distressing problem for older adults. There are several surgical options available to address fecal incontinence, aiming to improve bowel control and enhance the quality of life for patients. Some of the common surgical procedures for treating fecal incontinence include:

  1. Sphincteroplasty: This procedure is used to repair a damaged or weakened anal sphincter, which is the muscle responsible for controlling bowel movements. During a sphincteroplasty, the surgeon identifies the damaged areas of the sphincter and brings the healthy portions of the muscle together to strengthen the overall structure. This can help improve the patient's ability to control bowel movements.
  2. Sacral nerve stimulation (SNS): Similar to its use in treating urinary incontinence, SNS can also be effective for fecal incontinence. The procedure involves implanting a small device under the skin in the lower back, which sends electrical impulses to the sacral nerves that control the rectum and anal sphincter. The stimulation can help regulate bowel function and reduce the symptoms of fecal incontinence.
  3. Artificial bowel sphincter: This device consists of an inflatable cuff that encircles the anal canal, a balloon reservoir, and a pump that the patient can manually operate. The cuff keeps the anal canal closed until the patient activates the pump, which temporarily deflates the cuff and allows bowel movements to occur. The artificial bowel sphincter can be a suitable option for patients who have not responded to other treatments or who have a severely weakened anal sphincter.
  4. Colostomy: In severe cases of fecal incontinence where other treatments have been unsuccessful, a colostomy may be considered. This procedure involves creating an opening (stoma) in the abdomen and connecting it to the large intestine. Waste is then diverted from the colon through the stoma and collected in a pouch outside the body. While this procedure does not directly restore bowel control, it can significantly improve the patient's quality of life by bypassing the problem area.

As with any surgical procedure, it is essential to consult with a medical professional to determine the most appropriate treatment option for each individual's specific needs and circumstances. The choice of surgery will depend on factors such as the type and severity of incontinence, the patient's overall health, and the underlying cause of the problem.

Impact on Caregivers

The impact of incontinence on caregivers is also significant. Many people with incontinence are getting help with daily living activities either at home or in a long-term care facility. Caregivers may find themselves taking on additional responsibilities, such as assisting with toileting, bathing, and laundry, while also managing the financial aspects of purchasing incontinence supplies. 

The added stress and workload can contribute to caregiver burnout, a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can ultimately affect the quality of care provided.

According to Mandy Chamberlain, an Occupational Therapist and the founder of Seniors Flourish, incontinence can have a significant impact on caregivers in a long-term care setting. 

Not only does it add to their workload in terms of the time and energy required for cleaning and changing, but it can also cause emotional stress as they strive to maintain the dignity and comfort of the person they are caring for.

Despite these challenges, there is hope for individuals living with incontinence and their caregivers. By seeking appropriate medical support and treatment, many people can find relief from their symptoms, while others may experience a significant improvement in their condition and improved quality of life. Additionally, support groups and educational resources can provide invaluable guidance and camaraderie for both those affected by incontinence and their caregivers.

Being Prepared for Aging and Health Decline

Whether we like it or not, incontinence is just one of the many reasons people may need help with daily living activities as they age. The natural aging process can bring about declines in health, including chronic illnesses, mobility issues, and even dementia or frailty, all of which can lead to the necessity for long-term health care.

While we cannot avoid the consequences of aging, there are ways to address the impact it can have on both ourselves and our loved ones.

Relying on professional caregivers can be costly, and these expenses are not typically covered by traditional health insurance or Medicare when the care is primarily custodial. Be it in-home care, adult day care centers, assisted living, memory care, or nursing homes, the cost of care is continually rising.

Depending on unpaid and untrained family caregivers isn't an ideal solution for you or your loved ones. You deserve quality care, and if you're like most people, you don't want to place an undue burden on those closest to you.

Affordable Long-Term Care Insurance can help cover the cost of your preferred type of care, including in-home care, enhancing your quality of life, protecting your assets, and alleviating stress for your family members.

However, it's essential to prepare for this stage of life before your health starts to decline. Long-Term Care Insurance is best purchased in your 40s or 50s as a part of your retirement planning strategy.

Life might not always be easy or free from challenges, but there are numerous ways to ensure a good quality of life, no matter what obstacles we may face.

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About the Author

Mallory Knee is a freelance writer for multiple online publications where she can showcase her affinity for all things beauty and fashion. She particularly enjoys writing for communities of passionate women who come together for a shared interest and empower one another in the process. In her free time, you can find Mallory trying a fun new dinner recipe, practicing calligraphy, or hanging out with her family.

LTC News Contributor Mallory Knee

Mallory Knee

Contributor since September 25th, 2020

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