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Changes in the Respiratory System

Supporting people with an intellectual disability through the “Normal” Aging Process


Aging Persons with an intellectual disability will:

  • Likely affect the daily rhythms of our homes and the community as a whole.
  • Push us to focus even more on building upon, reinforcing and developing their strengths so that their quality of life is enhanced.
  • Have frequent changes in support and residential location and their health records are often inadequate. Consequently, it may take some time to piece together an accurate picture of the individual’s health status.
  • Challenge us to find creative ways for people to continue to do the things they like to do and to continue to have a role in the home.

Other Considerations:

  • Aging takes place earlier with individuals who are intellectually disabled than the general population.
  • In the 21st century, the life expectancy has increased to 66.1 years of age.
  • Individuals who are intellectually disabled account for 3% of older adults.
  • Health needs change as they individual gets older.

Respiratory System

Changes in the respiratory system expected as the person ages:

  • Respiratory disease most common cause of death.
  • Decreased volume and expansion of lungs may lead to decreased function.
  • Susceptible to lung infections, increases if someone is inactive.
  • Swallowing impairments can cause aspiration.
  • Pooling of respiratory secretions.
  • Atelectasis.

Strategies for supporting people with changes in the respiratory system:

  • Planning activities with shorter duration.
  • May need more rest periods.
  • Reposition person frequently if they are unable to move on they own.
  • Consult a doctor if person consistently coughs during or after a meal.
  • Encourage deep breath exercises.
  • Breathe through nose to moisturize the inhaled air.
  • Monitor clients at meal time and encourage them to eat slowly to reduce the risk of aspiration.
  • Keep immunization up to date and consult with health care provider about with other immunization that may be recommended.
  • Encourage hand hygiene throughout the day to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases especially during flu season.
  • Monitor for signs and symptoms of infection.
  • Encourage client to increase fluid intake.


  • Not every person will experience all of these changes.
  • Organizations concerned with a particular syndrome or condition may be helpful in providing information helpful for certain individuals.
  • Aging is a spiritual and psychological journey as well as a physical one.

Don’t Forget

  • If we believe that people can continue to grow and to share their gifts as they age we will support them to do so.

Information is compiled from the following:

  • McCracken Intervention Matrix –McCracken -College of Nursing and Health, University of Cincinnati and Lotteman Children, Inc. Covington, KY
  • A Focus on Geriatrics Sharing the Learning St Vincent Hospitals part of Providence Health Care
  • Age Changes and what to do about it Phyllis Kultgen and Peggy Hotz
  • Management Guidelines Development Disability Version 2, 2005.

Original material compiled by Jane Powell of L’Arche Ontario
Adapted with permission from

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