7 Signs Your Aging Loved Ones Need More Care ASAP—and What to Do About It
If you notice any of these troubling red flags, you'll want to act fast. Here's what the experts recommend for ensuring your parents stay safe and healthy.
Be on alert
It’s crucial to get catch potential issues early, says senior caregiving and healthcare expert Sharon Roth Maguire, MS, RN, chief quality officer at BrightStar Care. Roth Maguire has helped us identify the seven major changes to watch for, and offered valuable solutions.
Unexplained weight loss
When an elderly parent begins dropping pounds, you need to act quickly. Do they have mouth or tooth pain? Challenges chewing or swallowing? Feelings of nausea or fullness? Are they simply not enjoying food—or reluctant to drive to the grocery store due to declining vision? Any issues with the physical act of eating mean the two of you should get to a doctor right away.
If they simply don’t enjoy eating as much, suggest small nutrient-dense snacks they can eat throughout the day—high-calorie options like peanut butter, cheese, Greek yogurt, or cottage cheese are good. Focus on foods your loved one likes and will eat: If oatmeal is a favorite, add butter, brown sugar, and raisins, dried cranberries, or nuts like almonds or walnuts for more calories and nutrition. Remind your parent that they’re at an age when they should not be limiting calories.
“Also consider protein drinks,” says Roth Maguire. “There are plenty on the market that offer good nutritional value in small amounts that taste great over ice or poured into coffee as a higher value creamer substitute.” Protein powders can also be added to favorite food or beverages or even to recipes like those for pancakes, dessert breads, potato dishes, and soups.
If driving or transportation is an issue, explore “Meals on Wheels” or senior centers that offer meal programs in the community. You might even find a grocer who will deliver groceries. Depending on how severe the issue is, you may want to hire a home care agency to prepare meals and assist your parent with eating; the companionship will be a nice bonus.
Here’s how to know if it’s time for your elderly parent to stop driving.
Falls can be deadly for the elderly, so watch that your parents are still able to get around safely. Make sure their home is safe: You can cut the risk of falls by improving lighting, getting rid of throw rugs and unsteady furniture, and making sure appliance and lamp cords are out of harm’s way. Here are some more ideas for keeping your parents’ home safe.
If the balance issues came on suddenly or recently, schedule a doctor’s visit: Potential culprits could be new medications, changes to existing medications, dehydration, inner ear infection, blood pressure alterations, and for diabetics, fluctuations in blood sugar.
Your parent may need a cane or a walker—another option you can discuss with a doctor or physical therapist. If their balance isn’t too bad, suggest tai chi, which research suggests can do wonders for balance in the elderly. “It’s very important that unsteadiness is investigated quickly as it can lead to falls and for those that drive it could contribute to accidents. In addition, the older adult may limit activity and become socially isolated due to the dizzy spells,” says Roth Maguire.
A declining mood
A sudden mood shift downwards can be a dangerous sign, warns Roth Maguire. It could signal hormonal imbalance, a problem with medication, loss of friends, or just plain loneliness. If the issue persists or is particularly bleak, you may want to look into psychotherapy or counseling sessions—and be sure to look for someone who specializes in aging. “Depression can be serious—the rate of suicide in older adult males, in particular, is very high,” says Roth Maguire. “Declines in mood or function should be taken very seriously,” says Roth Maguire. “I would not hesitate to ask about thoughts of self-harm or suicide and to take steps, especially with older adult males, to remove guns from the home.”
Make sure your parents are staying socially engaged—most senior communities offer lots of social opportunities. Does the local church, synagogue, or temple have programs for older adults? Is there a senior center in the community that offers meals or programs, or social events?
If your parents can get around on their own and are physically capable, check into volunteering opportunities at a venue older adults tend to enjoy—church, performing arts center, school, library, museum, humane society, or food pantry, for example.
An obviously delicate issue, should incontinence arise as a problem, be sure to ask your parent whether it’s frequent and if it’s a recent development. Incontinence could be a sign of a urinary tract infection, neurological issues, or something else that warrants medical attention. “Do not assume this is a normal part of aging,” says Roth Maguire. Check out these 13 signs of bladder issues.
You may want to suggest your parent avoid caffeine and alcohol—but that they still maintain their fluid intake. And you may need to help them find products that can help them manage their incontinence.
They’re not keeping up with the house cleaning
If the home needs attention whether it be interior or exterior, consider signing up for services from local companies for yard work, housework, simple repairs—there are many companies that offer these services including home care companies—just ask. “It can make a wonderful gift for the older adult to have these services provide,” says Roth Maguire. “Be sure to check references and ask if the provider is bonded and insured.”
You may also want to contact a visiting nurse or home health aid service to help them keep their apartment clean, or offer to pay a family member, neighbor, or even local student you trust who could use the cash.
Want to keep a closer eye on things? Here’s a guide on how to use technology to care for aging parents, even if they hate technology.
They’re missing their meds
When the daily organizer is still full on Thursday, ask your parent or relative if they forgot or they just don’t want to take their pills. Either way, you’ll need to seek help. “If there are issues related to dementia or memory loss, the use of an outside home care agency may be your best bet,” says Roth Maguire. They can assist not only with taking medications, she says, but they can watch for side effects and medication interactions.
There are apps for smartphones to remind your parents whether they’ve taken medications, and some can even be programmed to send an alert to you to let you know they’re keeping up.
They’re drinking more, or they’re turning to meds for sleep
“If sleep is the issue, explore current sleep patterns and practices,” says Roth Maguire. Is pain the reason they’re not sleeping? “Talke with the pharmacist or healthcare provider for options, but something as simple as acetaminophen prior to bed may help” advises Roth Maguire. If they’re turning to alcohol to fall asleep or relax, she suggests relaxing drinks like herbal tea with honey instead, or listening to soft music, taking a warm bath, or soaking the feet to help create a good sleep environment.
If your eldely parent can’t relax, have a chat to brainstorm about solutions. The knowledge that they are not alone and have someone to talk with to problem-solve goes a long way to reducing stress. Suggest massage therapy, as well, which is often available at athletic clubs or senior centers.
“For some, reading books is the answer. If reading is difficult, there are many options on audio books and of course, podcasts,” Roth Maguire says.
If they’re still struggling, take a look for the nine signs that an elderly parent shouldn’t be living alone.
Helaina Hovitz is a native New Yorker, editor, journalist, and author of the memoir “After 9/11.” Helaina has written for The New York Times, Forbes, Teen Vogue, Glamour, Huffington Post, Women’s Health, Bustle, Prevention, Thrillist, VICE, HEALTH, Salon.