For example, you may wonder whether a loved one is experiencing memory loss—or simply the normal forgetfulness that occurs with aging. You may wonder if a parent needs to move from home to an assisted living community, or whether some other residential setting might be a better option.
Communicating with your aging parents may also pose a challenge. Many older people don’t wish to be a “burden” and will minimize (or even intentionally hide) the difficulties they may be experiencing. Some may resent being “told” what to do.
How can you determine if your aging parents are doing just fine on their own or are experiencing difficulties they can’t handle themselves? Knowing some warning signs might help you decide when the time is right for you to step in.
During your next visit with your aging parents, prepare to do a bit of detective work and be on the lookout for signs that they are struggling and may need more help.
1. Peek in the fridge. Is the refrigerator full of out-of-date or spoiled food? Is the home untidier than usual ? Spoiled food or changes in housekeeping habits can signal difficulties with daily tasks.
2. Notice appearances. Does a family member appear to be losing weight? Do you see changes in grooming habits? If your parent has always been well-groomed and fastidious, a change may indicate problems.
3. Look in the mailbox. Are bills piling up? Unopened bills on the desk or counter, or even in the mailbox, can indicate difficulties in handling paperwork.
4. Notice changes in routine. Has your father stopped participating in activities he has always enjoyed? Does your mother still attend services at church or synagogue as she always has? Losing interest in favorite activities can signal illness, depression, or forgetfulness.
5. Notice behaviors. Does your loved one seem confused at times? Or frustrated by tasks that normally come easily? This could indicate memory loss or other challenges.
6. Check out the car. Look for damage to the vehicle. Is Dad’s car showing a little more than normal road wear? Do you find dings, dents and scrapes when you inspect Mom’s vehicle? These can indicate difficulties in driving.
7. Watch for bumps and bruises. Does your loved one have any on the head, hands, arms or legs? Aging parents may be falling regularly, but reluctant to tell you, because they don’t want you to worry.
8. Pay attention to your intuition. Even if you’re not seeing obvious warning signs, if something seems “just not right,” try to investigate further. If possible, discuss your concerns with a friend, a neighbor or your parent’s physician.
Remember that when you’re caring for aging parents, problems often crop up quickly and unexpectedly. A seemingly minor issue today could turn into a crisis tomorrow. Even if all seems fine now, visiting with them offers an opportunity to take a few basic steps to prepare, should the time come when your loved ones do need assistance or medical intervention.
To do that, start a notebook or file. Collect any relevant information that might help in the event of a sudden health crisis: a list of medications, doctors and other health providers, and household information like security system codes. Assemble contact information for family members who live nearby, as well as trusted friends or neighbors who might be willing to check on your aging parents and step in when you can’t be there. You can also use the notebook to jot down, with dates, any observations or concerns you have during your visits. Those notes can jog your memory later and help you monitor a gradually worsening situation.
Regular visits also present a good opportunity to start establishing a connection with your parents’ primary-care physician. If possible, accompany your family member during a routine doctor visit. Introduce yourself and make sure the doctor has your contact information as well as permission to speak with you about medical issues, should your parent fall ill. Be sure to fill out any necessary HIPAA paperwork while you’re at the office. Many doctors will welcome the chance to meet with a patient’s adult children in advance of a crisis.
If you can watch for warning signs, think ahead and prepare, you’ll be better equipped to act should a crisis arise.