Of course, you want your parents to live independently for as long as possible. However, an age-related decline can happen quickly and seniors may be reluctant to ask for help, or even conceal or downplay their problems. Visiting your parents allows you to personally evaluate their living situation, as well as their physical and mental health. Next time you visit, look for these warning signs that may indicate your aging parent needs help at home.
Signs of abuse
Look out for signs of financial, physical, or emotional abuse. Over 90 percent of elder abuse is committed by a family member, often an adult child. But you should also be wary of the intentions of anyone new who has entered your parent’s life. Financial exploitation can include making changes to their account, stealing, or borrowing money without repayment. If you’re privy to your parent’s banking information, check for abnormalities in their checking account. Signs of physical or emotional maltreatment include bruises, unexplained injuries, or an abrupt change in personality.
Changes in the home environment
If your parent’s house is gradually falling into disrepair, that’s an obvious sign they can’t keep up with the maintenance. Other changes in the senior’s surroundings, like if their home is more messy or cluttered than usual, can also be a signal for help. Laundry and dishes piling up could mean they don’t have the strength and/or desire to keep up with chores.
In the kitchen, check for scorched cookware, proof that they might be forgetting they’re cooking until something is burning. Throw out any expired food in the pantry and fridge, and make sure they have plenty of fresh, healthy food. Also, check the expiration dates on your aging parent’s medications to ensure they’re being taken as prescribed.
Unintended weight gain or loss
Gaining weight is a symptom of diabetes, while weight loss may be a symptom of dementia or cancer.
According to agingcare.com, “Certain medications and aging, in general, can also cause a reduction in appetite and change the way food tastes.”
Both unintended weight gain or loss could point to depression, poor diet, or arthritis, mobility problems, low energy levels or fatigue that make it difficult to shop for groceries, prepare nutritious meals and clean up afterward.
Having a hard time getting around
Notice any changes to their balance, coordination or mobility? An unsteady gait, reluctance to walk, or obvious movement-related pain can be caused by joint, muscle or neurological problems. According to the CDC, “Each year, 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries.” Avoiding getting up, using the stairs, or leaving home suggests that your aging parent may be worried about falling.
Don’t ignore minimized movement. If your parent’s lack of activity is not addressed, it could make them frailer or more likely to fall. Fear of falling can cause seniors to withdraw and stop participating in daily activities. Discuss solutions, such as pain management, physical therapy, in-home care, or mobility aids with their doctor.
Fluctuations in disposition
Pay attention to your parent’s mood and behavior. Confusion, delirium, or behavior changes can be symptoms of a UTI, depression, or dementia and require immediate medical attention.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of depression in older adults include memory difficulties, personality changes, fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep problems, and avoiding socializing. It may not seem like a big deal that your mom no longer attends her weekly bridge game, but according to the National Institute on Aging, isolation has been linked to a higher risk of serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
Depression and anxiety can be debilitating, reducing overall health and quality of life. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation symptoms of anxiety in older adults include “fatigue, chest pains, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, having to go to the bathroom frequently, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.” If you notice signs of depression and/or anxiety in your loved one (they often go hand-in-hand), talk with a physician about your concerns.
Poor personal hygiene
Bad breath could mean mom or dad is dehydrated, suffering from dry mouth caused by meds, or could be due to a lack of oral hygiene. A decline in personal appearance can indicate cognitive decline or that they’re having a hard time showering or bathing on their own. Body odor, infrequent bathing, an unkempt appearance, the smell of urine, or a noticeable decline in grooming habits and personal care (unkempt hair, untrimmed nails, wearing dirty or stained clothing) are all signs a senior needs help caring for themselves.
If your parent still drives, get them to take you somewhere so you can observe their skills on the road. If you notice unsafe driving or if their car has unexplained dents and scratches, it’s time to talk about giving up the keys and explore other transportation options.