Witnessing a decline in your parents’ health and well-being is devastating. When we see the signs, the role reversal begins: we enter that significant rite of passage of taking on the caregiver role that our parents once held for us.
The signs that your elderly loved one needs help aren’t always obvious, especially if they don’t live near you.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, about 27 percent of American seniors live alone. This number is similar in the rest of North America and Europe, but it is 10 percentage points higher than the global average. This isn’t cause for alarm in itself; Americans love independence and treasure those years in retirement when they no longer have commitments related to working or raising children. Yet research shows that living with other people, whether as a couple, in an extended family or in another arrangement, is beneficial to mental and physical health.
Many elderly people refrain from asking for help because they value their independence and don’t want to be a burden on their children or grandchildren. This is why it is critical to pay close attention to your loved one’s behavior and environment so you can notice if he or she needs help.
Here are four serious issues to watch out for, along with some actions you can take if you notice potential areas for concern.
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented level of isolation for everyone, and it affected older adults disproportionately. Isolation can affect seniors’ physical and mental health, especially if they live alone.
Loneliness can be as deadly as smoking or obesity, according to a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Senior isolation can complicate existing conditions, encourage an unhealthy lifestyle and affect cognition. Unhealthy habits increase when seniors are isolated. Also, isolation increases the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness often leads to increased stress levels and a pessimistic view of the future.
What you can do: Talk with your loved one about your concerns. Find appropriate outlets for social interaction, and do what you can to get your loved one involved in them. Consider a change in his or her living situation, if necessary and if possible.
2. Poor eating habits
If your loved one is losing or gaining weight, you first want to find out if it’s because of a medical condition. If it’s not, it could be because he or she is unable to prepare meals anymore. A decline in physical health can make it difficult to go to the grocery store. Depression can lead to a loss of appetite and a loss of interest in foods your loved one once enjoyed.
What you can do: If family live in the area, take turns cooking for your loved one. He or she will probably appreciate having a home-cooked meal delivered — because a social visit is also involved — but your loved one might get even more benefit out of having you and other family members take groceries over to his or her home and cook a meal together.
If no family live nearby, you could hire someone to cook meals for your loved one. Meal delivery kits are another great option; there are more services than ever to choose from. Some require cooking, while others deliver premade meals that your loved one can just heat up and eat.
3. Memory issues
It is upsetting when your loved one struggles to remember details or when he or she repeats a story or question that you just discussed a few minutes earlier. There are many causes for memory loss, so as soon as you notice this happening, schedule a visit with your loved one’s doctor.
“Dementia” is a broader term for cognitive decline. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for an estimated 60 to 80 percent of cases. The second most common form of dementia is vascular dementia, which is caused by decreased blood flow to the brain. Other types of dementia include Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia. Some medical conditions, including issues related to medications, infections and sleep issues, can cause serious memory problems that resemble dementia.
What you can do: Take your loved one to see his or her doctor so you can get a correct diagnosis. Then you can get your loved one the right medicines and support. It will also help you determine what steps you might need to take to make a change in your loved one’s living situation. For example, you might need to explore moving him or her to a facility that has different levels of care, starting with independent living and then moving into assisted living and then memory care, if necessary. Being prepared can make the transition easier for your loved one and your family.
Memory loss can affect every aspect of a person’s daily lifestyle. Has your loved one gone out to drive somewhere and forgotten how to get home? At some point, you might need to have that difficult conversation with your family about when it’s time for your loved one to stop driving. Memory loss can also make it difficult for a person to pay utility and other bills on time. If you see signs of late or missed payments, you can set up automatic payments for your loved one or take over his or her accounts and monitor them yourself.
Depression affects more Americans than ever. According to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults who report having been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lifetime reached 29.0 percent in 2023; that’s nearly 10 percentage points higher than in 2015.
Studies of nursing home patients who have physical illnesses show that the presence of depression substantially increases the likelihood of death from those illnesses. Depression also has been linked with increased risk of death after a heart attack. In addition, advancing age often comes along with the loss of social support systems due to the death of a spouse or siblings, retirement, or relocation.
What you can do: If you notice a change in your loved one’s mood, it is critical that you have a doctor evaluate him or her for depression, even if it seems mild. Watch for symptoms including fatigue, trouble sleeping, irritability, confusion, moving more slowly than usual and a loss of interest in activities your loved one used to enjoy.
If the doctor diagnoses depression and prescribes medications, make sure your loved one takes those meds. This can be more difficult, obviously, if you don’t live nearby, but staying in close contact with your loved one can help.
Becoming your parents’ caretaker can be stressful. This role reversal can consume an increasing amount of your financial, physical, and emotional resources as your loved one’s condition continues to deteriorate.
A 2023 study by AARP found that half of caregivers (50 percent) said caregiving increased their level of emotional stress, while more than one-third (37 percent) said it impacted their physical feelings of stress. Four in 10 caregivers (39 percent) said they rarely or never felt relaxed.
Just as it’s important for your loved ones to ask for help when they need it, it is important for you to ask for help. Keeping up with all your daily responsibilities related to work and family while also becoming responsible for your elderly loved one’s well-being is a lot to juggle.
Notice signs that you are taking on too much, and get help from every source you have available to you.
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