Visits with aging parents often are a wake-up call this time of year. Perhaps you haven't seen your loved ones for some time and when you do, it's startling. Aging can be a gradual process for some but for others, the changes accelerate so fast it shocks those who haven't seen them in months.
If you visit your aging loved one, notice these five things. Any one of them is a red flag. It can be a warning to you that help is needed and a serious discussion is mandatory if you want them to stay safe. Don't wait for your loved one to bring up a need for help. Too often, they can't face it and are in denial. Many older people are terrified at the thought of being "put in a home" which they see as a form of imprisonment. Loss of control over their lives is the fear. Those living alone are especially vulnerable as day-to-day, no one is watching. When you see one or more of these signs, it's time to step in.
1. Unusually unkempt appearance. Forgetting to comb one's hair is one thing. By itself, it may not mean much. But dirty clothing, lack of basic hygiene, failure to notice grooming and personal appearance are a deeper problem. If a parent was always fastidious and you see a change, don't dismiss it as unimportant. It is a signal that something has changed.
2. Inability to track the conversation. An aging parent who was, in the past, able to participate in a discussion about current goings on or any more serious subject and now can't keep up or follow what is being said is showing you signs of cognitive decline. There may be several explanations for this, but it is not normal and not "just getting old". Normal aging does not cause us to lose intelligence.
3. Repeating one's self over and over again. Older people start to lose short-term memory when dementia is developing and short term memory loss is a classic sign of cognitive impairment. If your loved one keeps asking the same question you just answered or tells the same story six times an hour, you have a warning that could mean dementia is in process. Your loved one needs a doctor visit to check it out. If you can, accompany your parent so accurate information can be given the the examining doctor.
4. Unsteady on her feet, recent falls. If your loved one seems wobbly on her feet and is holding onto the furniture to get around in the house, you are seeing a big red flag. Falls are unfortunately common among elders and are often the trigger that leads to injury, hospitalization and loss of independence. Perhaps she needs a walker or cane. An evaluation by her physician and a physical therapist can avoid what your aging parent dreads most: losing the ability to be on her own.