Living with Epilepsy as an Older Adult

1 in 26 people will be affected by epilepsy, and symptoms can be overlooked in older adults.

Although sometimes considered a childhood disorder, epilepsy can affect people of all ages. In fact, about 1 in 26 people will develop the condition in their lifetime. And in older adults, the symptoms can sometimes be confused with other disorders. Identifying epilepsy and getting the right treatment is important for living a healthy and independent life.

Epilepsy is a chronic, neurological disorder, characterized by unpredictable seizures that are caused by unusual electrical impulses in the brain. There are two times in our lives when epilepsy is most likely to start – once in childhood, and again after age 65. For more than half of people living with epilepsy, no direct root cause can be determined.

Identifying Epilepsy

When we picture someone having a seizure, we often think of violent, jerking and shaking movements. But in reality, only a third of elderly patients who have epilepsy will actually experience convulsions. There are actually many different types of seizures, and some symptoms can be subtle and often mistaken for other conditions such as stroke.

In older adults, the symptoms of a seizure may look like:

  • Experiencing a sudden feeling of confusion or foreignness in a familiar place
  • Feeling like you lost a couple of minutes and can’t remember what happened
  • Stopping and staring into space for a period of time, seeming “out of it”
  • Hearing voices, hallucinating, or seeing people who aren’t really there
  • Unusual repetitive actions like chewing, mumbling, or fussing over clothes
  • Erratic behavior like running, undressing, screaming, or acting very afraid

Since strokes and seizures have some of the same symptoms, it can sometimes be hard to tell them apart. Strokes are caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain, and require immediate medical attention in order to minimize irreversible damage to the brain. (Click here to learn more about identifying the warning signs of a stroke.) In contrast, seizures are caused by an electrical misfiring in the brain. While it’s rare that a seizure itself would cause death, the person may be severely injured as a result – such as if they got into a car accident while driving or falling in the tub.

If you or your family members are concerned you may have suffered a seizure, it’s important to talk to a neurologist. The doctor will start by collecting a detailed health history about what happened before, during, and after the episode. It may be helpful to have anyone who witnessed it write down what they saw happen with as much detail as possible. If it happens more than once, ask someone to take a video with a cell phone camera. The neurologist will likely order an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record a picture of your brain waves in order to make an accurate diagnosis.

Living with Epilepsy

An epilepsy diagnosis doesn’t have to stop you from living a healthy, independent, and fulfilling life. For most seniors, seizures can be fully controlled with the correct medications. If you are otherwise in good health, and your mental abilities are unaffected, you can usually continue to live independently, with a few lifestyle modifications to help keep you safe from injury.

Develop a Medication Plan

It’s important to follow the treatment plan your doctor prescribes, including taking anti-seizure medications regularly. Failing to take medications on schedule is the most common cause of breakthrough seizures.

  • Use a daily chart that shows when to take what medicines.
  • Organize your medications in a daily pill box, divided by time of day.
  • Leave yourself notes or reminders. Program alerts into your phone or watch, or write them in your day planner.

Identify Your Triggers

For some people, seizures can be brought on by certain situations, which can vary from person to person. Keeping a seizure diary can help you recognize patterns and predict what might bring on an episode. Some common triggers include:

  • Missing a medication dose
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Dehydration
  • Exposure to extreme heat
  • Flashing lights or loud noise

Prepare Your Living Space

There are simple adjustments you can make to your house or apartment to help minimize accidents if you were to lose consciousness during a seizure:

  • Replace or put padding on sharp furniture edges or corners that may injure you if you fall.
  • Opt for wall-to-wall carpet instead of tile floors, or cushion your living area with thick, non-slip rugs.
  • Take the elevator instead of stairs.
  • Use an electric stove if possible instead of an open flame. Or better yet, prepare meals in the microwave.
  • Use oven mitts while cooking, and use the back burners on the stove, with the handles turned away from the edge, to prevent pots from falling.
  • Take showers instead of baths, and install safety rails in your shower or tub. It’s a good idea to add an anti-scald device for your shower faucet if you don’t already have one, in case you fall and accidentally hit the temperature knob.
  • Install an alarm or emergency device to call for help if you need it.

Have a Support System

If you live alone, it’s important to have a network of friends, family, and neighbors who are aware of your condition and know how to help if needed.

  • Develop a daily check-in system with a relative or neighbor, such as a quick phone call or text message. Before turning on the stove or getting in the bath, let someone know, and then call them again when you’re done.
  • Keep a Seizure Response Plan in an easy-to-find spot, like on the refrigerator, and make sure your family and/or caretaker know where to find it.
  • Talk with your doctor about whether it’s safe for you to drive. Work out a transportation plan with a friend or caretaker, or use public transportation.

When is it time for Assisted Living?

For some people, choosing an Assisted Living community can actually increase your independence while living with epilepsy. Services are customized to your unique needs, meaning that you can worry less, and spend more time enjoying life. Some of the benefits of Assisted Living include:

  • Medication set-up and reminders
  • Emergency pull cords, wireless alert pendants, and Daily Wellness Checks
  • Arranged transportation to appointments, shopping, and more
  • Restaurant-style dining (no more meals to cook!)
  • Barrier-free bathrooms with built-in safety features
  • Supportive, friendly community and trained caregivers available 24/7

Providence Assisted Living communities offer personalized service that may help you live a secure, confident lifestyle. Our six locations are listed below, and clicking the links will take you to the website for that particular location. When you’re ready, you can make arrangements to visit in person and learn more: