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10 Warning Signs to Look for When Visiting Aging Parents
For aging parents, questions and issues related to their physical, social, and psychological well-being may arise. How do you know—especially if you live far away—if your parents’ needs have changed or additional care is required? And, more importantly, how can you tell if their health or safety is at stake?
If you’ve recently noticed any of these 10 warning signs in your aging parents during a recent visit, then it may be time to intervene.
1. Unexpected changes in mood or extreme mood swings
Gauging someone’s true emotions over the phone is hard. While you’re in the same room with your loved one, keep an eye on their moods and behaviors. It’s okay if your loved one is moody every once in a while, but constant irritation or frequent mood swings, especially if they’re out of character, could be signs of depression or dementia.
2. Forgetfulness or confusion while taking medications, performing once-familiar tasks around the home, etc.
If your parent is forgetting doses of medications, overdosing on certain medications, or taking the wrong pills at the wrong times, something could be wrong. Contact your loved one’s doctor immediately if their inability to manage their medications is causing immediate health concerns, drug interactions, or even emergencies.
3. Broken appliances and other safety issues
Are you noticing common safety concerns that can be caused by an inability to recognize or respond to danger? This could be small things like a broken lamp or forgetting to turn off a burner after cooking, or more serious situations like leaving a cigarette or candle burning all night or not shoveling icy sidewalks during winter. These situations can put your loved one at a higher risk for injury.
4. Cluttered, disorganized home, including expired or spoiled groceries, dirty dishes in the sink, etc.
Pay close attention to your parent’s general surroundings. Is there excess clutter or piles of dirty laundry or unopened mail where it’s typically clean and organized? Is the sink overflowing with dirty dishes or the trash can stacked high with spoiled groceries and other garbage? Have any foods or medications expired or need to be refilled or replaced? Get a feel for your loved one’s habits and trust your gut if something feels off.
5. Depression, low energy, or loss of interest in activities and hobbies
Is your parent failing to run their usual errands or follow through with plans to meet with friends and family? Are they sleeping for longer periods or generally uninterested in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed? Are they reluctant to leave the house or socialize with others in general? This could be a sign that their health is declining, and they need help.
6. Poor diet or hygiene and weight loss
Changes in personal hygiene can be a clear sign that a loved one is struggling to care for themselves. Physical signs of bad health—like poor diet, weight loss or not eating regularly, or poor hygiene—can be symptoms of deeper issues: cancer, depression, or dementia, for example. These could also be symptoms of certain medications or aging in general. Schedule a doctor’s appointment to discuss these issues.
7. Missed appointments, bounced checks, or late notices on bills and utility payments
Trouble managing money is another sign that your parent is struggling with forgetfulness or early dementia. Pay attention when you’re out and about with your parent. Are they able to confidently pay the bill at a restaurant? Do they have confusion over money they thought they had? Are they experiencing bounced checks or receiving frequent calls from collection agencies?
8. Problems with balance or unsteady gait
Pay attention to the way your loved ones move and walk. Hesitancy to move around or changes in the way they move could be a sign of joint, muscle, or neurological issues. If your loved one is unsteady on their feet, they have a higher risk of falling which can cause a serious injury. If you notice any of these problems, contact your loved one’s doctor.
9. Unexplained bruises on the body or marks on the car
These can be signs that your loved one is having trouble with balance and physical ability, too. A simple fall, caused by problems with balance or unsteady gait, can result in hip fractures, traumatic brain injuries, broken bones, and more. Problems with vision, hearing, and reflexes can lead to unsafe driving, so if your loved one is experiencing frequent accidents, traffic tickets, anxiety about driving, or unexplained dents or scratches on their car, it’s time to talk.
10. Repeated phone calls at all hours of the day/night
If your loved one is calling multiple times a day—and at all hours of the day/night—or calling 911 frequently to report accidents, this is an immediate red flag that more help is needed.
What to Do
If you’re concerned that your aging parent or loved one might need help, it’s time to do something about it. First, have an open, compassionate discussion with them about how you’re feeling. Ask questions—but be kind and understanding. You may find out that they’re feeling scared or concerned too, but they’re not sure what to do.
It could be the perfect timing to discuss the possibility of assisted living. Identify supportive resources available in your loved one’s community—assisted living facilities for potential tours, the local Area Agency on Aging or department of human services, for example. Make a list of friends and other family members nearby to contact in case of an emergency, and double check to make sure your loved one’s current contact information and the numbers of their doctors and caregivers are all up to date.
Now, prepare a to-do list of all medical, legal, and financial considerations. This should include lists of your parent’s debts, incomes, and other expenses (financial), vital documents related to your parent’s medical information and estate (legal), plus all health conditions, medications, doctors’ information, and upcoming appointments (medical).
These preparations—and the overall feeling of coping with a loved one whose health may be declining—may seem excessive or catch you off guard, but it’s important to remind yourself and your loved one that gathering this information and finding resources is the best plan of action to help them remain independent, safe, and healthy.