At least 17.7 million individuals in the U.S. are helping to take care of an older adult with health needs, according to the 2016 report from Families Caring for an Aging America. As we age, the odds of declining physical or cognitive health that affects our ability to function independently steadily increase. The report notes that between ages 85 and 89, more than half of older adults (58.5%) require a family member’s help because of health or functional issues, and about three-fourths of adults age 90 and up (74%) need some help from others.
Of course, some of us need help sooner because illness or an accident can befall us at any age. How do family members know when a loved one has reached the stage where help is needed? And how do they decide where to turn to get the appropriate level of care their loved one requires?
Sometimes the need is obvious. A debilitating health event like a stroke or fall, or a traumatic accident like a car crash can render someone incapable of self-care. But perhaps more common is the case where the signs are subtle and accumulate gradually. Here are some things to look for.
[See: 9 Rewards of Caregiving.]
The Mayo Clinic breaks the warning signs of decline into eight basic categories.
Is Your Loved One Able to Manage Self-Care?
Common signs of decline include poor hygiene, sloppy dressing and unkempt appearance, says Maria Hood, director of admissions at United Hebrew in New Rochelle, a senior care facility in New York. “With my dad, we began to notice he wasn’t shaving, and his clothes were rumpled. This was a man who always took very good care of himself,” Hood says.
Also notice if the home is being kept up. Are the bills getting paid? Are the lightbulbs working? Are the appliances clean and the dishes put away? Are they able to go to the grocery or drugstore? Any changes in household upkeep or personal care offers clues to their health, the Mayo Clinic says.
Is There Significant Memory Loss?
We all lose some memory as we age, and the occasional misplaced keys or disappearing remote are nothing to worry about. What is worrying, though, is memory loss that affects bigger issues, like where you are, how to drive and what you just said minutes ago.
The Mayo Clinic’s signs of this type of memory loss include:
— Asking the same questions over and over.
— Getting lost in familiar places.
— Being unable to follow instructions.
— Being confused about location, time and well-known people.
Is Your Elderly Loved One Safe in the Home?
Check the home for clutter, loose rugs, exposed electrical cords and other dangers that could cause a fall. If your loved one seems in danger when climbing stairs or moving normally about the house, that is a red flag.
In addition, are they able to reach dishware, tools and other daily objects easily? Can they read and follow instructions on medication and other labels? Have you seen worrisome incidents, like falls, dropped glasses or missed medication doses? A safe home is paramount to keeping your loved one well.
[READ: Assisted Living Checklist.]
Is He or She Safe Driving a Car?
We all make jokes about the old man driving too slow in the left lane, but it’s not funny. Hood noticed her father driving “white-knuckled” at 45 mph in a 65 mph zone, and took it, appropriately, as a sign that he was not up to the task. Slowed reflexes, diminished vision and hearing and increasing confusion all make driving a challenge as we age.
In addition, if you notice more dents and dings in the car, or if your loved one has gotten a ticket or a warning for a driving mishap, those are signs of the need for an intervention.
Has Your Loved One Lost Weight?
Unexpected and unexplained weight loss could be a sign of either physical or mental health problems — or potentially both.
The Mayo Clinic says weight loss could be a result of:
— Difficulty cooking. It may be hard to summon the energy or desire to cook, difficult to hold and manipulate cooking tools or challenging to read labels or follow directions and recipes.
— Loss of taste or smell. Aging naturally causes diminishment in these senses, and when food doesn’t taste or smell good, eating becomes less enjoyable.
— Socioeconomic issues. Your loved one might find grocery shopping physically difficult or too expensive if they have financial pressures.
Has Your Elder’s Mood or Spirits Changed?
Everyone gets sad, and the elderly often have a lot to be sad about, with the loss of friends and family and the everyday challenges of growing older. But clinical depression is not a natural product of aging, as some people believe. Many seniors maintain a happy outlook most if not all of the time. If you notice a change in mood that lasts longer than you might consider normal, it could indicate clinical depression or another illness.
Is Your Loved One Socially Active?
Social engagement is one of the primary markers of good physical and mental health. The coronavirus pandemic has made that difficult for everyone, and seniors are suffering from isolation like the rest of us. Check in on your loved one to see if they are staying as active as possible, connecting with friends, maintaining hobbies and participating in the activities they enjoy. If he or she has lost interest in being socially active, that is another red flag.
Is Your Elderly Loved One Walking Safely and Steadily?
Do you wince every time your aging mom or dad walks across the room? Do you hop up to help with even short walks from the table to the sink? Do they seem likely to fall?
Aging can lead to muscle weakness, stiffness and pain in the joints, balance problems and other issues that affect gait and steadiness on foot. Falling is a primary cause of disability in the senior population, so any sign of walking difficulty should be addressed immediately.
Making the Choice
If your loved one needs more help than you can provide, there are different levels of care available, including home health aides, assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Experts recommend you familiarize yourself with the differences among these options long before you need to make a choice, so that you are not forced to move quickly in the event of a health crisis.
Talk to your loved one’s doctors or, if they have been in a hospital, discharge coordinators to determine what level of care is best. Another option is to hire a geriatric care manager, who can help you navigate the options in your community.
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