10 signs that your elderly parent may need a little help

Elderly man looking at bills

Source: Pond5

When we see our parents on a regular basis, we may not notice subtle changes in their routines or behaviors. If one is failing in some way, the other may pick up the slack and so, it may seem as if nothing is amiss. They may not mention anything because they don’t want to worry us or be a burden.

In my father’s final years, he was ill and needed a lot of care. We all pitched in to help. My mother often seemed distracted. We figured it was stress. After my father died, she acted confused and distant. We assumed she was simply grieving.

Within a few months, it became clear that something else was wrong. We had all been so focused on our father that we hadn’t noticed some worrisome signs. She couldn’t remember if she’d eaten or taken her morning medication. We found unpaid bills and little reminder notes she had written to herself. She loved driving her car, but we discovered she had recently forgotten her way home. Her doctor did a simple in-office test and said she had mild cognitive impairment. A year or so later, she had progressed to early Alzheimer’s.

It would be easy to feel guilty about not picking up on the signs sooner, but we simply didn’t know. And it wasn’t helpful to ask my mother if everything was ok, because she always said, “Everything is fine. Thank you for asking, but please don’t worry about me.”

Siblings who don’t see their parents (or other elderly relatives or friends) on a regular basis may be quicker to notice changes. Going home for the holidays can be an ideal time to check on their wellbeing. What should you look for? Here are 10 signs that your elderly loved one may need some help.

The 10 signs 

Weight loss

Weight loss could be a sign that he/she is having trouble shopping for food or preparing meals. Or who, like my mother in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, forgets to eat. Check the refrigerator and pantry. Is there any food that is stale, spoiled or far past the expiration day?

Weight loss can be a sign of illness or digestive problems. It may also be due to difficulty chewing or swallowing.

Change in physical appearance

Look for signs of poor grooming or personal hygiene. Does your loved one seem disheveled? Unclean? Wearing rumpled or dirty clothes? Wearing the same outfit every day? Wearing clothes inappropriately? Acting confused about how to work a zipper or buttons?

Change in personality

Is your outgoing parent now quiet and withdrawn or vice versa? Not interested in what’s going on? Constantly falling asleep? Not able to concentrate or focus? Does he/she seem confused about performing once familiar tasks? Are you hearing the same stories over and over? Our memories aren’t as sharp as they were in youth, but there is a difference between normal memory loss and loss due to dementia.

Medication issues

Review your loved ones’ prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.

My dad had to take a lot of medications. Together, we made a list that included things like name, dosage, what the medication was for and possible side effects. I got a pill container and once a week, used the list to fill the box. It was a great system.

Going over his medications also helped me understand about side effects and how one medication can affect another. Among other things, they can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, loss of appetite, drowsiness and memory loss. With his doctor’s help, we were able to wean my dad off some medications he no longer needed. Doing so eliminated some side effects (in particular, memory issues.)

You also want to check that your loved one is filling and taking medications properly.

Withdrawing socially

Even if your parent was never a social butterfly, you should still look for signs that he/she seems lonely or depressed or has become more isolated. It’s an easy thing to happen as we age. Our bodies become frailer and it may be harder to participate in social activities. Interaction with friends diminishes because they’re in the same situation or may have passed away. If your loved one always enjoyed a hobby, look for signs that it’s still enjoyable or even being pursued at all.

The house looks different inside

If your mother is like my mother, housework was never high on her list of priorities. What you want to look for are changes in the way he/she keeps house. Is the house dirty? Laundry piled up? Signs of hoarding? Dirty dishes? Pots and pans with noticeable burn marks?  Dried up plants? Overflowing trash?

The house looks different outside

Be concerned if things that were kept up are now in bad need of repair. Gutters are full. The house needs painting. Tools aren’t put away. The yard is no longer being maintained. Again, the important thing to look for is whether something is different.

Driving is a problem

My father reluctantly, but willingly, decided to give up driving. My mother fought tooth and nail even after she had two accidents and got lost. In my opinion, if your elderly person is a hazard on the road, it’s non-negotiable.

A sure sign that driving has become a safety issue is that you are a nervous wreck when you’re a passenger in your loved one’s car or you would NEVER let your kids be one.

Other signs include lots of scratches or dents, traffic tickets, or minor accidents. If you still drive along, look for tailgating, drifting into other lanes, confusion, or driving under the speed limit. Listen to your intuition.

Safety hazards

Mobility — getting from here to there — can become more challenging as we age. It doesn’t mean we can’t still get around, but we may have to move more slowly and need additional help.

Here are some of the top things you should check to help minimize the risk of falls.

  • Poor lighting
  • Slippery floors
  • Loose rugs
  • No stair railings
  • Uneven floor surfaces
  • Clutter, anywhere, not just on stairs
  • Electrical, computer or phone cords
  • Pets underfoot and/or their food dishes
  • Everyday items stored in “too-high” places
  • No grab bars in strategic places, such as the bathroom

Financial problems

Look for signs that your loved one is struggling to manage his/her finances. Are bills piling up? Have there been final warnings or disconnect notices? My mother couldn’t remember if she had paid some bills. I found notes she had written on the back of envelopes that said, “Did I pay this? I must call them.”

Scammers prey on elderly people. You want to make sure yours hasn’t fallen victim to a scam. (Prevention will be future blog post.)

What should you do?

It’s impossible to list all the warning signs. The important thing is to be aware. Our parents tried to keep us healthy and safe and now it’s our turn. What do you do if you recognize any of the signs? Ultimately, we recommend a thorough medical evaluation. It’s possible that whatever is wrong is something that can be easily treated. Or it could mean that your loved one needs assistance.

Sharing your concerns and that you want a medical opinion is a whole other story. Fortunately, we’ve got some tips on how to start the conversation.

This post originally appeared in the Advantage Home Care blog, which I also write.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.