Paula Spencer Scott, author of SURVIVING ALZHEIMER’S: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers, produced this article for Caring.com
Maybe you’re planning a visit to see one or both of your aging parents after a period of not seeing them. Like a lot of adult children of elderly parents, you may worry about how they’re managing and whether they might need assistance. If that’s the case, your next visit to see them can be a valuable opportunity to gauge how they’re doing.
1. Give a big hug.
Obvious weight loss. Anything from depression to cancer to difficulty shopping and cooking can be behind a noticeable loss of weight.
Increased frailty. If you can notice something “different” about a person’s strength and stature just in a hug, it’s noteworthy. Pay close attention to how your loved one walks (shuffles more?) and moves (rises easily from a chair? has trouble with balance?), comparing these benchmarks to the last time you were together.
Obvious weight gain. Injury, diabetes, and dementia (because the person doesn’t remember eating and has meals over and over) might be the cause.
Strange body odor. Sad to say, changes in personal grooming habits because of memory trouble or physical ailments might be noticeable on very close inspection. Look, too, for changes in makeup, hair, or the ability to wear clean clothes.
2. Riffle through the mail.
Unopened personal mail. Everybody leaves junk mail alone, but few of us can ignore a good old-fashioned, hand-addressed letter.
Unopened bills. This can be a sign that your loved one is having difficulty managing finances – one of the most common first signs of dementia.
Letters from banks, creditors, or insurers. They may be routine business. But it’s alarming if they’re referring to overdue payments, overdrawn balances, recent accidents, or other worrisome events.
3. Take a drive with
Mom or Dad behind the wheel.
Nicks or dents as you enter and exit the car. These can be signs of careless driving.
Signs of tension, preoccupation, or being easily distracted. Is your loved one no longer willing to drive at night? Or on highways? Is it hard for him or her to talk to you or listen to the radio and also pay close attention to the road?
Signs of impaired driving. Tailgating, slow reaction time, going consistently below speed limit, confusing gas and brake pedals are signs to watch for.
4. Inspect the kitchen –
fridge to counters to cupboards.
Perishables past their expiration dates. Your loved one might be buying more than he or she needs, as we all do – but you want to be sure there’s a reasonable ability to ditch the old stuff (rather than use it).
Appliances that are broken and haven’t been repaired. Check the microwave, coffeemaker, toaster, washer, and dryer – any device you know your parent used to use routinely.
Signs of past fire. Look for charred stove knobs or pot bottoms, potholders with burned edges, a discharged fire extinguisher, smoke detectors that have been disassembled. Accidents happen – but accidental fires are a common home danger for older adults.
Increased takeout or simpler cooking. If someone who used to cook a lot no longer does or has downshifted to extremely simple recipes, the explanation could be a change in physical or mental ability.
5. Look around the living areas.
Piles of clutter. Especially if this is a change for your loved one, being unable to throw anything away may be a sign of a neurological or physical issue. Papers that spill onto the floor are a particular tripping hazard.
Cobwebs, signs of spills that haven’t been picked up, or other signs of housekeeping that’s more lax than it once was. Spills are a common sign of dementia –
the person lacks the follow-through to clean up after a mess.
Clutter and grime in the bathroom. Often those who make an extra effort to tidy for guests in main rooms neglect the bathroom, where a truer picture of how the person is keeping up with things may be reflected.
6. Notice how the other
living things are faring.
Plants that are dying, dead, or just gone. How well other life is looked after may reflect how well your parents can look after their own lives.
Animals that don’t seem well tended. Watch out for dogs with long nails, cat litter boxes that aren’t changed routinely, dead fish in the fish tank, or any animal that seems underfed or poorly groomed.
7. Walk around the grounds.
Signs of home maintenance problems. Look for discolored siding or ceilings that might indicate a leak, gutters choked with leaves, broken windows or fences.
Newspapers in the bushes. Check for papers that were delivered but ignored.
Mail piled up in the mailbox. Watch for this indication that your loved one doesn’t even retrieve it regularly.
8. Observe your loved one’s mobility.
Trouble walking and moving around can make it tough to complete routine activities of daily living, making in-home care a much-needed help. Mobility issues can have far-reaching effects – making it tough to get around the house (especially if stairs are involved), shower, or go out to buy groceries or for other errands and social visits.
9. Look for signs of forgetfulness.
We all forget things sometimes – the name of that book you read, whatever it is you walked into the room to get. But increasing incidents of forgetfulness over time – especially when it comes to important to-dos like taking medication or paying bills – may indicate that home care help is needed.
What to do next
If you’ve noticed that your aging parent isn’t able to take care of themselves or their homes the way they used to, it may be time to consider getting them additional help, such as in-home care or assisted living. These options are especially relevant if you are helping to care for elderly parents from a distance.