Elderly parents will often exhibit signs of declining health or mental sharpness.

In the aftermath of the holiday season, it's very common for adult children with elderly parents to become concerned about the health of their senior loved ones. This often happens because the adult children were visiting their parents at some point during a holiday season, and found out that something about their parents' behavior or appearance was disturbing. Home care professionals in the Lake Stevens area have been made aware of such scenarios fairly often, and are familiar with what to look for, why it happens, and what should be done about it. 

Why parents' health or behavior declines

Virtually all adults will go through health changes which are related to advancing age. For instance, bones tend to become less dense, arthritis causes joints to become stiff, muscle mass declines, eyesight and hearing often become degraded, and there is a slowdown in cognitive processing. When any one of these changes occurs to a senior, it may not have a big impact, but when two or more of them combine, it can have a major effect on a person's daily life. Declining physical health may cause them to withdraw from activities once enjoyed, they may not want to drive a vehicle anymore, they may be more subject to falls and injuries, and the recognition of declining health may cause them to slip into depression.

Why seniors may not seek assistance

Probably in the majority of cases, seniors will not contact friends or even loved ones about their declining physical or mental capabilities, and there are several reasons for this. One very common fear is that they will lose their independence, and be shuffled into some kind of assisted living environment. Many times a senior simply doesn't want to be a burden to others and will keep quiet about personal problems as a result. There's also the possibility that they are simply unaware of declining health or mental sharpness. A senior might also be aware of what is happening on some level, but is in a state of denial about it, and refuses to acknowledge that it's actually happening.

Signs to look for

In many cases, you won't have to look hard to see warning signs associated with declining health or cognition. But if you do begin to suspect that some kind of decline is underway, here are five very common signals that may tend to confirm your suspicions:

  • Overlooked medications – if you see that the expiration date has passed and there are still a number of pills remaining, chances are medications are being missed
  • Forgetfulness – while isolated incidents are not alarming, a pattern of forgetfulness should be considered a warning signal
  • Sudden withdrawal from activities – if an elderly person suddenly declines to become involved in once-appreciated activities, it's probably a sign that something is changing
  • Disheveled household – this can happen if a senior loses physical ability, or simply forgets daily household cleanup
  • Requires assistance navigating – if an elderly person requires aid when walking around the house, such as leaning against walls for support, this can be a significant warning sign.

What to do about it

Probably the worst thing you can do is to try and sit down and have a major conversation with your elderly loved one about their changed behavior or appearance. However, it's not something that you should put off in the hope that it was a temporary condition and will take care of itself. Especially in the beginning, it can be a very difficult subject to broach. For instance, if you find yourself having to discuss poor hygiene or a messy personal appearance with your parent for the first time, it can be a very awkward role reversal situation.

Usually, the best approach is to tactfully weave into a normal conversation some reference to whatever observable signs have indicated a change in behavior or appearance. This approach can lessen the impact on your loved one, and decrease the chances of alarming them or making them defensive in the process. Another possibility would be to discuss the situation with your parents' doctor and have him/her bring it up at the next appointment. Sometimes having this kind of talk with a doctor is more acceptable, because it's coming from a trusted and authoritative figure who routinely provides advice on health matters.

There's also a chance that any observable changes can be improved by taking a few simple steps. For instance, a loss of vision could be corrected by eyeglasses, hearing loss could be improved by a hearing aid, physical therapy might help restore diminishing muscular control, and some kinds of cognitive decline can be aided by medications. In any case, as an adult child of an elderly parent going through age-related physical or mental decline, you should be on the alert for warning signs, and try to take remedial actions which won't alarm or offend your loved one.