Signs aging parents may need help

Parenting is a lifelong role parents take on for their kids. Even when their kids grow up, many parents may be there to lend a hand or an ear. But as parents get older, it may be time to switch roles. Although it may be challenging to recognize when that time has come.

You may not notice the physical, mental or emotional issues your parents may be struggling with, especially if you don’t see or talk to them often. Older adults can become weaker, ill or depressed. They may not be able to run errands, go grocery shopping or take care of themselves or their home like they once did. That can put their health and safety at risk.1

“Adult children may only find out there are issues when their loved one falls and suffers a serious injury, for example,” says Gary Small, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, New Jersey. But no one wants to wait until a parent ends up in the emergency room to act — or when they stop paying bills and get the utilities shut off.

Talking honestly and openly with your parents about their wellbeing may help prevent problems, Dr. Small notes. A good way to do that is to keep an eye on how well your parents are doing in key areas in their lives. Terry Fulmer, Ph.D., R.N., president of The John A. Hartford Foundation in New York City, a foundation dedicated to improving the care of older adults, calls these areas the 4 M’s — what matters, mobility, memory and medications.

It might be time to step in if your parents aren’t able to get around on their own, can’t keep up with their medications, have memory issues or problems making decisions. It’s also useful to know your parents’ wishes about their future. That way, you can all work together toward their goals.

Learn how to put the 4 M’s into practice so you can be sure your parents stay safe and healthy.

What matters: Find out what's most important to your parents

The first step is discovering what your parents’ goals and preferences are, advises Fulmer. Typically, it’s to stay in their home, she adds. If that’s the case, have an honest conversation with them about how that can be done without sacrificing their safety.

What to do: It’s best to approach this as a partnership, notes Fulmer. During the conversation, explain that the goal is to honor their wishes as much as possible, Fulmer adds. “And as their child, or caretaker, you are looking at ways to keep them safe,” she says. That sets the stage for the specific ways you can help them with the other 3 M’s.

Mobility: Check how well they move around

Every year, 3 million people 65 and older get treated in the emergency room for broken bones, hip fractures and other fall-related injuries. Difficulties walking and balancing, as well as lower body weakness, play a big part in whether someone has a higher risk of falling.2

To check if older parents have mobility issues, watch them as they go up and down stairs or get in and out of the car, suggests Fulmer. Also look for bruises or other marks, which could be a sign that they’re losing their footing, explains Dr. Small. Notice if they’re limping, dragging a foot or walking unsteadily.

What to do: “If you see any issues with the way they walk, it’s time to get them checked out,” says Dr. Small. Offer to go to their provider with them to see what’s going on, including whether they could have a condition that makes it harder to get around, like arthritis or Parkinson’s disease.

The provider might recommend seeing a physical therapist to work on balance training, or using a cane or walker. These solutions can help people become stronger and less likely to fall.

Also, offer to make some changes around the house so it’s safer. Fall-proof steps to take include:2

  • Removing items that are tripping hazards, like throw rugs and clutter
  • Making sure there are bright lights everywhere
  • Installing grab bars in showers and by the toilet
  • Putting railings on both sides of any stairs

Memory: Watch for changes

Everyone forgets a word or a name sometimes. But there are other signs that can appear in people who struggle with memory or thinking skills. Those include:

  • Repeating themselves. “We often hear people repeat stories, or ask the same question over and over,” explains Dr. Small.
  • Not paying bills. To spot this, offer to collect their mail to see if there are past-due notices that could indicate a problem, suggests Dr. Small.
  • Communication changes. They may have trouble following a conversation, finding the right word or forgetting words they already know (such as “shower”).
  • Hygiene issues. They may not pay attention to how they look, either by not bathing or not doing laundry. Or they may let the house get really dirty.

What to do: Make an appointment with a parent’s provider, suggests Dr. Small. Not all declines in thinking are caused by dementia. Infections, medication side effects or depression can also trigger memory loss.3 A provider can rule out those causes with a checkup or refer a parent for more testing.

If a parent has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, early intervention can make for a better outcome, explains Dr. Small. There are treatments that can help slow decline or lessen symptoms, like memory loss and confusion, for a limited time. Slowing the progression can help both children and parents prepare for a future where the parents need more help.4

Medication: Look for red flags

About 1 in 3 adults between the ages of 62 and 85 take at least 5 different prescriptions.5 But some of those drugs may be unnecessary or have harmful side effects, notes Fulmer. Or, the combination of medications may be affecting your parents’ health.

If either parent is taking 5 or more medications (including vitamins, supplements and over-the-counter (OTC) medications), do a quick check to see if they’re well-organized. Does your parent have a pill box or document that says when to take each pill? Do the medications come from different providers? Does your parent complain of dizziness or fatigue? All of these may be signs that your parents need someone to go over their medications with them.6

Some OTC sleep aids and antihistamines can cause memory issues, explains Dr. Small. Other medications can cause dizziness and may lead to falls. And certain meds can lead to confusion or hallucinations.5

What to do: Make an appointment with a parent’s provider or pharmacist for a medication review. Bring all the medications your parent takes (including vitamins, supplements and OTC medications). The provider or pharmacist can go over them to check whether a single medication or combination may be causing harmful side effects. They can also tell you if more than one provider is prescribing medications. It’s always best that your parents share all their medications with every provider they see. That way, their doctors know what they’re already taking before deciding whether or not to prescribe a new medicine. 

Talking to aging parents about any issues they may be having can be hard. The key to having those difficult conversations is empathy, explains Dr. Small. Let parents know that the goal is for them to continue to live at home — safely.

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