12 Signs Your Elderly Parent Needs Help
Help! I Am Concerned About My Parent!
How do you know that your parent is in need of intervention?
Are you really seeing a problem, or are you only imagining it?
Most of us really don't want to admit that our parents are beginning to have problems. Their arms have always been strong enough to hold us, their minds have always been sharp enough to give us the answers we're looking for, and we don't want to believe that those times may be coming to a close. Most of the time, our parents won't admit it, either, and often get angry if it is suggested that they may be needing more assistance than they used to. Since it is hard to accept, and harder still to confront, many of us treat the issue as the elephant in the middle of the living room.
Sadly, with this head-in-the-sand philosophy, you and your parents will end up with some serious issues. According to Agnes Schare, RN, BSN, and VP of a home care management company, "there are no laws or policies to aid in determining if your loved one is too old to live independently, but it is always wise to be proactive regarding the care of your aging family member." As my mother got older, we started to see many little warning signs that told us that she needed more help. Having open discussions and knowing what their desires are helps us make wiser choices when the time comes.
Signs Your Elderly Parents Need Help
If your loved one is getting sick or injured often and making more frequent trips to the doctors, this is an obvious red flag that they may need more assistance. But what are the other signs you might see? How can you assess your parents' ability to be independent without dragging them into a doctor? Here are the red flags to look for:
- In their home, you notice growing piles, dishes, messes, stains, and dirt.
- Bills aren't getting paid and other signs that they may be losing their financial decision-making abilities.
- Your parents are having difficulty feeding themselves or you are worried they're not eating healthy food.
- Your parent refuses to take a shower or wears the same dirty clothes day after day.
- Your parent is dressed improperly for the activity or the environment (see examples below).
- You see evidence of confusion or difficulty in the kitchen.
- It is getting more difficult for them to safely drive a car.
- You notice increasing and alarming clues of memory loss (scroll down for a list of telltale signs).
- If you suspect that your parent might be depressed.
- They are acting in a strange or unusual manner (see full description below).
- You see more bruises, scrapes, slips, and accidents than usual.
- If your parent is seeing, hearing, or smelling things that are not there.
Below, you'll find full descriptions of each of these signs and solutions for how to help your parent. Keep in mind that many of these signs can be indications of depression or other medical issues, too.
1. Sudden Lapses In Housekeeping
Mom has always been a great housekeeper, but lately her house has been dirty and cluttered. This can mean a lot of things: Maybe she has been busy, perhaps she is more tired than usual, or maybe she is becoming overwhelmed with the daily chores.
What to do if your elderly parent's house is a mess:
Keep the discussion about the mess light and do what you can to help her catch up. You can help by stopping by more often, casually doing the dishes, or offering to vacuum. Watch to see if it gets any worse. If the problem continues or worsens, then she probably isn't just tired.
2. Mail Is Piling Up and Bills Are Not Being Paid
Dad is letting the bills and other mail pile up. He seems overwhelmed by tasks that used to be easy. Bills that have never been opened are going unpaid. You may find notices of late payments or bounced checks, and there may be messages from debt collectors.
At some point, parents can no longer face the decision-making required by the business of maintaining a household. As people get older, they often become more likely to hoard things and let piles accumulate. If the checking account is a mess or bills aren't being paid, this can be a troubling sign that your parent my be overwhelmed and not thinking as clearly as they used to. Over-spending and extreme frugality may also be signs that your parent is in financial distress.
What to do if your parent stops opening mail or paying bills:
Don't just go in and start opening their mail or tossing out what you think is trash. Gently discuss your concerns with your parent. Ask for permission to open their mail and have them allow you to become a signer on their checking account so that you can help. Managing money is a huge part of independence, so tread very carefully in this discussion.
3. Weight Loss
Weight loss can happen suddenly and drastically, especially after the death of a spouse. Shopping, preparing food, and cooking just become too much trouble. You may notice that there is no food in the fridge, or the food is spoiled. You may also notice signs of dehydration like sleepiness, dizziness, or fewer trips to the bathroom. My mom was only eating a carrot or a piece of celery now and then because that was easier than cooking a meal.
What should you do if your parent stops eating or drinking?
First, talk to them to find out what's happening: Is it a sign of depression, forgetfulness, or a loss of appetite? Is the cause medical, psychological, or something else? Determine the reason and enlist a doctor's assistance, if needed. You may be able to help by delivering individually packaged servings of casserole. If you live out-of-state, ask your parent to consider a Meals on Wheels or similar program in their area.
4. Dirty Clothes or Poor Hygiene
The elderly may forget to change their clothes, sometimes sleeping in and wearing the same things for days, or they might put on the same clothes every morning. This is a sign of a problem.
What to do if your parent stops bathing:
This is a tough one, since it's so personal. Try to find out what the problem is. Maybe it's too hard for your parent to get into the shower, or maybe they can no longer manage doing laundry. If you can talk to your parent's doctor and get some advice, do so.
5. Inappropriate Clothing
Clothing mishaps might seem relatively harmless, but they might endanger a person's safety and health. If you notice that your father is wearing summer clothing in winter, going out without a coat, not wearing shoes, forgetting to button himself or forgetting articles of clothing, these are indications that he might need more help.
What to do if your parent can't dress themselves properly:
This could be dangerous, especially if your parent lives in a very hot or cold climate. Arrangements will need to be made to assist your parent get dressed and make sure they're safe. You should also involve the doctor, as it may be an early sign of dementia.
6. Signs of Confusion in the Kitchen
If you find pots that are burned on the bottoms because they have been left to boil dry, spoiled food, water stains or mildew under the sink or elsewhere because taps were left on and forgotten about, dishes that remain unwashed for long periods of time, or food left out, these are all signs that your parent is at risk. The loss of the ability to prepare food is one of the main reasons older people move into assisted living facilities.
What to do when your parent can no longer cook, clean, or feed themselves:
To prevent your parent from starting a fire, damaging their home, or becoming malnourished, you'll need to remove the dangers and arrange for another way to feed them.
7. Difficulty Driving
If you see any of these signs, it your parent might need help:
- Stiffness in the driver's seat. If your father is physically incapable of turning his neck to see behind him, it could be a cause for concern.
- Getting lost. When your mother consistently forgets where she is, where she's going, or how to get there, it's time to step in.
- Slow responses. If your dad can no longer respond quickly enough to changes in traffic.
- Frustration or rage. If you mom is starting to lose her temper while driving and has lost her ability to maintain composure and control, she may no longer be up to the task.
- Parking tickets, traffic violations, or moving citations. If your dad is getting more tickets and citations, you'll want to find out why.
- Accidents and close calls. If you are afraid to drive with your mom because she has suddenly started inching too close to other cars or objects on the sides of the road, braking or swerving last-minute to avoid collisions, or getting into fender benders or even serious accidents, it's probably time for her to stop driving.
- A dented car. If dings, dents, and scratches are accumulating on your dad's car, it's a sign that something might be wrong, especially if he can't remember what caused them.
What should you do if you think your parent shouldn't be driving anymore?
Before you take away the car keys, you'll want to...
- Arrange for your parent's needs to be met. They'll need rides to the stores, doctor's office, and other outings.
- Find other solutions to help your parent retain some mobility and independence. Help them learn how to take the bus or call a rideshare company.
- Involve their doctors. The issue may be temporary or treatable. For example, maybe a new vision prescription is needed, or maybe the danger can be avoided by driving only during the day or avoiding longer, unfamiliar trips.
8. Loss of Memory
Missing doctor's appointments, forgetting to take medications, forgetting to attend church when they have been regular church-goers all their life: these all may indicate a problem. My mom forgot about my daughter's wedding, and we had to call her and then postpone the ceremony for over an hour, waiting for her to get there. We did not see it as a problem at the time, but looking back, it was our first clue of what was to come. Although some cognitive impairment and memory loss is unavoidable with age, when it begins to endanger your parent's life, you'll need to step in.
What to do if your parent can no longer remember important things:
This is a strong signal that they need extra help, especially if they are not taking (or accidentally taking too much of) their medications. It's time to step in before things get out of hand.
There are many reasons an older person might get depressed: coping with aging itself can be depressing, as well as dealing with loneliness and the losses of relationships through death or divorce, the loss of physical capabilities, the loss of jobs and occupations that may have given meaning to life, and the loss of self-perception as capable, strong, and valuable members of society. So feelings of loss and sadness are completely normal, but if depression continues, unabated, for two weeks or more, it's time to pay attention.
What to do if your elderly parent is depressed:
First, familiarize yourself with the signs of depression, which include sadness, loss of energy and motivation, loss of interest in activities and relationships, trouble sleeping, and thoughts of suicide. Many of the other problems mentioned above (weight loss, poor hygiene, etc.) might also indicate depression. A doctor should make an assessment and suggest treatment options.
10. Drastic Changes in Behavior
Maybe your once-active mother now just wants to stay in bed all day watching television. Maybe your once-responsible father has been driving you crazy and acting like a child, having tantrums or giving you the silent treatment, moping around the house. Maybe your once-steady parent suddenly starts overeating, yelling at people, making inappropriate comments, or losing their sense of humor.
What should you do if your parent's personality starts to change?
As they age, some people lose their filters and the ability to refrain from saying negative things that once would have shocked or embarrassed them. If your parent is starting to act like a person you don't recognize, it's probably time to figure out what's happening.
11. Bruises, Cuts, and Accidents
It's normal for aging skin to bruise more easily, but if you notice that your mom is covered in bruises and doesn't remember what happened, it might be time to worry. Likewise if your dad has been increasing his trips to the doctor's office for minor accidents. Black eyes, bruises, cuts, scrapes, and bandages are all indications that your parent is no longer physically capable of navigating life without injury.
What to do if your elderly parent is covered in bruises:
There may be a medical cause for this, so it's best to get the doctor's opinion.
12. Just Acting Weird
If your parent starts saying strange things, making phone calls at odd hours, hearing voices, inventing enemies, having delusions or hallucinations, displaying unusual fears and nervousness, or showing signs of paranoia, this may be a sign that they need help. Age brings an increased risk of mental illness, and psychosis becomes much more common as people age.
What to do if you think your parent might no longer have adequate mental capacity?
You'll definitely need a proper diagnosis for this, so you'll need to enlist a doctor's help.
Above all, be gentle. No one wants to get old or lose their independence.
It is a difficult time for everyone but it will be even more difficult if you aren't sensitive to your parents' needs.
Talk About It Before It Happens
Ideally, you can discuss things before they happen. Hopefully, you will talk to your parents when they are still younger and not having problems. Ideally, you will agree, together, what to do.
It is hard to bring the subject up, but please do:
- Take notes during your discussion.
- Sign and date the notes and have your parent do the same.
- Copy the notes and put the signed and dated originals away in a safe place. It may make it easier to carry out those decisions and plans if you can show your parent what was discussed, decided, and signed.
- You may even want to have the papers notarized so, if there is ever a question among siblings or anyone else, you will have those dated papers as proof.
- When it's time, consider getting a power of attorney agreement drawn up so that you can legally act on your parent's behalf.
Remember that it's alright if they want to revisit this conversation later and change their mind, but it's also important to have some record of previous conversations and decisions to look back on.
Where Can You Get Help for Your Elderly Parent?
- Get a good geriatric doctor. Not only can they help with proper diagnosis and treatment, but a doctor can point you to various agencies that may be able to assist, and can more closely observe your parent the next time they are in for an appointment.
- Geriatric care personnel can help. A geriatric care manager is usually a licensed nurse or social worker who specializes in helping to care for older people, either in their home or in a care facility. These are people who can assist you and your family identify and meet your parent's needs.
- Consult with elder law attorneys and financial planners for financial and legal guidance and support.
- If you're worried about the care your parent is receiving, a report can be made to Adult Protective Service (APS) to ensure the safety and well-being of your family member.
- The National Council on Aging is a good resource.
What Are the Warning Signs of Dementia or Alzheimer's?
By age 85, 35% of people show signs of dementia, a broad term used to describe symptoms that include impaired thinking and memory loss. Alzheimer's Disease, a progressive mental deterioration that affects 10% of people 65 and older, is one type of dementia. Here's what to look for:
- sleep difficulty (trouble falling sleep, waking up often, and shifts in sleep cycles)
- disorientation (forgetting where they are or what they're doing)
- forgetfulness or memory loss (a little memory loss is normal, but when it starts getting dangerous, it's time to worry)
- behavioral changes (has your parent become uncharacteristically anxious, depressed, irritable, confused, or fearful?)
- disorganization (inability to complete normal tasks)
- agitation (embarrassment, anger, or nervous excitement)
- lack of concentration (does your parent seem easily distracted or have trouble focusing or following along?)
- difficulty with complexity (perhaps they can no longer do math, follow complex conversations, read long books, or multitask)
- loss of motor function (when your parent can no longer take a shower, drive, or cook)
- impaired judgment (wearing the wrong clothes, making dangerous decisions)
- paranoia (losing touch with reality: feeling persecuted, jealous, or fearful that others are out to get them)
- hallucinations (seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, or smelling things that don’t exist)
- inappropriate or aggressive sexual behaviors (a sudden lack of inhibitions and boundaries)
- cognitive decline (loss of memory, language, etc.)
- apathy (withdrawal from society, loss of interest, flat emotions)
These signs may or may not be clues of the onset of dementia. They are not proof, they are just things to watch for and discuss with a doctor.