As your parents age, chances are that they will need increasing levels of assistance with one or more of their daily activities. In all likelihood, however, that they won’t admit it to you – maybe because they are in denial, maybe they fear losing their independence, maybe they don’t want to burden you… or maybe they feel that it’s just none of your business.
Still, it’s probably up to you to recognize the signs that your parent might need help with daily living tasks – and to step up and address the issue. Earlier is always better – identifying brewing problems before they balloon (and crash and burn) gives you the opportunity to think things through and to make calculated decisions, rather than performing triage in a crisis situation.
If you live far away from a parent, it can be difficult to pick up on difficulties before they turn into full-blown crisis. Subtle changes like mail stacking up, spoiled food, or pain when walking won’t be picked up in a phone call, or even a Skype conversation. So it’s important to make the most of your visits. As an upside, because you don’t see your parents as frequently, you’re more likely to pick up on a change. It’s hard to see gradual changes when you’re constantly present. But your fresh eyes can make the comparison to how things were weeks or months ago, and if you’re paying attention, any changes will jump out at you.
What changes should ring warning bells?
Keep an eye out for changes in:
Is Mom’s hair atypically unkempt, or otherwise showing signs of lack of care?
Are there visible cuts or bruises on her body? Does Dad appear to have gained or lost a significant amount of weight?
Has Mom’s gait changed?
Is she using furniture as a support surface as she makes her way through the house?
Does she appear to have more trouble managing stairs?
Does Dad appear to have changed the frequency with which he normally showers or brushes his teeth? Have his personal grooming habits changed?
Is the bathroom area clean, or are there signs of inability to use the facilities properly?
Does your dad seem more forgetful than before?
Is he repeating himself in conversations?
Does Mom seem sad or withdrawn?
Does she not seem to enjoy doing the activities you usually enjoy together?
Is Dad’s clothing dirty or torn?
Is his clothing appropriate for the weather?
Do your parents socialize less than in the past?
Are there any new close friends in your their lives? (While new friends are a wonderful thing, a new acquaintance who pops into your parent’s life and suddenly occupies a very large part of it might be someone looking to take financial advantage of them.)
Have they made any unprecedented donations or loans recently? (Also a potential sign of financial abuse)
Are there any unpaid bills lying around?
Is there more clutter in their house than usual, especially clutter that poses tripping or other health hazards?
Are there areas of disrepair?
Do you see multiple burnt-out lightbulbs?
If your dad has stairs in his home, are there any signs that he’s avoiding the second floor and moving daily activities to the first floor?
Are there any expired or spoiled food items in the fridge?
Are there scratches or dents on your dad’s car?
Do you notice issues with your your mom or dad’s driving ability when you go on errands or to appointments with them?
Warning bells don’t mean the panic button
Any of these signs should initiate further investigation, but keep in mind that their presence doesn’t definitively signify a problem.
The damage on Mom’s car might have been caused by a bump-and-run while it was parked outside the store she was shopping in. The summer clothing in November might be a sign that she was so busy with her social activities that she hadn’t managed to change over her wardrobe yet.
Make sure to take a deep breath and remind yourself to be objective, take it slowly and not jump to conclusions (hard as that is for us children who are worried about our aging parents!).
Broach the subject of your concern in a relaxed conversation. Try to stay open and curious. If you’ve come in from overseas, it’s best to wait at least a day or two before you start bringing up these observations and questions.
The keys to successful change
Your parent may be understandably reluctant to admit that their ability to care for themselves and their home has declined. It is a very painful place to be exist emotionally. The more respect for your parent as an individual you can communicate, the more likely you are to have productive discussions.
Change is inevitable – and when it comes to aging parents, it is often hard for all involved. But if you can keep your eyes open, your mind open and your heart open, you have the best chance of dealing with these inevitable changes in the most successful way possible.