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How can I tell when my elderly parent needs assistance?

Recognizing when your elderly parent needs assistance and it is no longer safe for your parent to live alone is one of the most challenging aspects of caregiving. Health issues, including dementia, limited mobility, a high risk for debilitating falls and chronic medical conditions, can make it difficult for older adults to manage a household and care for themselves. When an older adult becomes confused easily, forgets fundamentals of meal preparation and other household chores, or is no longer able to perform daily tasks, it can be hard for the individual and his or her family. Help is available. If an older adult is living alone, depending on his or her level of need, having a home health aide visit for a few hours each day or relocating to an assisted-living or nursing facility can all be appropriate options.

Shelley Webb
Nursing Specialist

Any change in habit or personality could be a warning sign that an elderly family member needs help to remain at home. Has your parent become easily irritated or suddenly taken to being tearful? These could be signs of dementia. And contrary to what many believe, dementia is not a normal process of aging.

When considering whether or not your loved one needs extra help, look carefully at some of the following signs:

  • Are his or her clothes clean and well-kept?
  • Has he forgotten to add a belt?
  • Has she forgotten to change out of her slippers and passes it off as being comfortable or is he or she wearing the same outfit over and over again?
  • Does your parent or loved one show signs of deteriorating hygiene such as body odor, bad breath, unkempt hair?
  • Is his or her home as tidy as it should be?

Of course, as seniors age, their surroundings won't be as neat as they once were, but they should still be clean. Changes in behavior are what matter most.

Weight loss is another change in habit that is a warning sign. Your loved one may be unable to prepare their meals, fearful of using the stove or oven, unable to pay for groceries, or just forgetting to eat.

Anthony Cirillo
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

For many of us, the holidays offer a once-a-year time to visit with elderly relatives who live at a distance. A blog I wrote around the holidays offered tips on spotting when a loved one needs help. You certainly don't have to wait for the holidays to use these!

Mary Twomey, MSW, Co-Director, University of California, Irvine, Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect offered these for us to share:

  • Does an elderly loved one require help with chores or housekeeping, personal care, shopping and meal preparation, money management, transportation, medical checkups, or medications?
  • Are they isolated or, do they live with others? If living with another, are they dependent on that person for care? Is that person an appropriate caregiver? During your visit, keep an eye out for warning signs of self-neglect, or abuse or neglect by others. If, before you make your trip, you suspect that your loved one needs extra assistance, plan a longer stay so that you can visit local aging service organizations during regular work hours.
  • Make the most of your visits by taking some private time with the elder to discuss future planning. Allow time for them to express anxieties. You can decide together what needs to be done and who can help. Be observant while you are visiting.

Elder abuse could be contributing to the need for assistance.

Self-Neglect – If the senior lives alone and does not have anyone providing assistance, self-neglect may become an issue. Some things to look for include:

  • Senior appears confused
  • Senior is no longer able to handle meal preparation, house cleaning, laundry, bathing, or timely bill payment
  • Senior seems depressed
  • Senior is drinking too much or is overusing drugs
  • Senior is falling frequently
  • Senior appears undernourished, dehydrated, under-medicated, or is getting care for problems with eyesight, hearing, dental problems, continence, etc.

This is a start. The key is to be observant. That is the only way you will pick up on things.

There are signs that can help you tell when your elderly parent needs assistance. These include the following:
  • Your parent experiences sudden weight loss. While this may simply be a sign of decreased appetite associated with aging or another illness, it could also be a signal that an elderly person is forgetting to eat or has lost the ability to cook for themselves.
  • Your parent displays a lack of personal hygiene. Dirty clothes, an apparent need to bathe or ungroomed hair may signal forgetfulness or a loss of motor skills. Additionally, your parent may be experiencing arthritis pain that makes these tasks painful.
  • You notice burns or signs of injury. This could indicate weakness, poor balance, substance abuse or forgetfulness.
  • Your parent is not taking medication as prescribed. Proper use of certain drugs can make a big difference in how well a person maintains their abilities with age. If you notice that prescriptions are old, are not being taken regularly or are being consumed too rapidly, this may be a sign that assistance is needed in medication adherence.
  •  Cognition appears to be declining. Poor memory, difficulty communicating or paranoia may all be early signs of dementia. Additionally, individuals with this mental condition may begin displaying abnormal behavior, such as wearing winter clothing during warm weather.
  • Finances are getting out of control. If your parent is getting constant calls from creditors or if you notice extreme poor spending habits, like donating very large amounts of money to strange organizations, this could be a sign of declining cognition or a general lack of ability to maintain a budget, which is especially important for retired individuals.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.