The beauty of life can be found in its unpredictability and its ebbs and flows along the way. The milestones and rites of passage we all experience through the years can teach us many things about ourselves, and others. Never is this more apparent – and maybe a little bittersweet – than when we find ourselves at the crossroads of seeing our aging parents’ needs begin to change.
Sometimes an aging parent’s care needs may suddenly flip a switch, such as in the case of an illness or injury. Many times, however, the signs can be gradual and not as easy to hone in on. But if we learn to spot some of the subtle ‘red flags’ that can point to a growing pattern of change in our aging parents, we can better understand when additional help may be needed, sooner rather than later.
Unkempt appearance or a decline in hygiene
A friend’s father, who was fastidious about shaving every single morning and loved nothing more than his regular trim at the neighborhood barbershop, became alarmed when she noticed he began missing his faithful trips and then began only shaving intermittently. A gradual change in how your parent looks, or in their grooming habits, can be an important signal. If your parent isn’t bathing with regularity, or they seem to be wearing the same articles of clothing over and over, or their clothing is spotted with stains, this can be signs of change. Also, pay attention if you notice they have gained or lost weight.
Changes in memory or cognition
Forgetfulness can be something everyone experiences from time to time, especially as we age, but if you notice changes that seem more dramatic or are increasing in frequency, it may be time to take a closer look. This can include repeating the same comments or questions over and over, difficulty with finding familiar places or getting lost, or becoming confused with simple tasks. Additionally, missing appointments, mixing up dates and times, or not recognizing familiar faces can signal it’s time to involve their doctor.
Bumps or bruises
Naturally, the risk for trips and falls increase when we get older but if you happen to spot unusual cuts or bruises on your parent, it could signal some physical instability. Many older adults, especially family members, can be embarrassed or uncomfortable admitting they’ve accidentally hurt themselves, so having a gentle conversation with them to get more information can be especially important.
Unusual or growing clutter
If your parent has always been a bit of a pack-rat who typically hates to part with their beloved collection of mail-order catalogs from the last year, that’s one thing. But if you begin to notice an unusual or out-of-character increase in ‘stuff’ piled up in strange areas, or the hallways and kitchen counter are becoming increasingly littered with clutter, this could be a concern – and a safety risk.
A quick peek inside the refrigerator or in the kitchen cupboards can yield important information. If you see that their typical food items are past their expiration dates, or there seems to be a decline in the amount of food in their home, perhaps getting to the grocery store is becoming more challenging or they aren’t remembering when to discard their food when appropriate
Difficulty paying bills
Stacks of unopened mail or bills that haven’t been paid on time also paint a picture. Additionally, if they’re not keeping up with simple record-keeping or you happen to notice their check register seems to have some missing information, it could mean things are becoming more overwhelming for them.
Fender-benders or tickets
If you spot dents or scratches on your parent’s car or if they have minor accidents with increasing frequency, this could be an important sign that driving is becoming a safety risk to them, and to others. Similarly, pay close attention to speeding tickets or if they are cited for other infractions with regularity.
There are a variety of options for supporting aging parents through the slow-dance of growing older. It could be as simple as having a heart-to-heart conversation with them about your concerns and perhaps getting some extra support or services in the home. Or, if you believe their needs may signal something more significant is going on, consider talking with their doctor or care provider about what you’ve noticed, and how you can all best partner together to ensure they continue to age safely, and with grace.