5 Ways to Identify Care Needs of Aging Parents

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Adult children want to assure that their parents live their best lives as they grow older. They may feel frustrated when parents who are concerned about being a burden to their children are not forthcoming about declining health.

A frank conversation with parents might encourage them to open up about developing health issues and unmet needs. When parents change the subject or insist that everything is rosy, concerned children can look for clues about a parent’s physical and mental health without pressing for information that the parent would rather not reveal. Here are five ways children can gather information without creating tension in their relationships with their parents.

Take a Walk Together

Walking promotes good health at every age. Studies have identified a relationship between walking speed and life expectancy. The pace at which an older person walks is a measure of vitality. 

While walking speed typically decreases with age, an unusually slow gait may be an indicator of health problems (including heart and lung issues) that need to be addressed. When a parent cannot walk at a reasonable speed or tires quickly, discussing potential symptoms that the parent cannot hide might persuade the parent that it is time for a medical checkup.

Take a Ride Together

While visiting a parent, suggest going to a movie or taking a trip to the supermarket. Ask the parent to drive (perhaps using an urgent need to send text messages as an excuse).

How parents drive can help adult children identify health issues. If they can’t remember the route to a familiar destination, they may be showing signs of dementia. If they slam on the brakes at intersections, vision problems may be impairing their ability to see stop signs. If driving skills have eroded substantially, it might be time to have a difficult conversation about whether it is safe for the parent to continue to drive.

Pay Attention to Appearance

Even if a parent is reluctant to admit feeling unwell, children may be able to spot subtle evidence of poor health. A mother who no longer dresses in a clean outfit every morning might be suffering from depression. A father who doesn’t walk to the mailbox every day might have pain in his hips or knees. An unkempt appearance might be a sign of cognitive decline. Gentle inquiries about noticeable changes in the way parents present themselves to the world might reveal health problems that require intervention.

Adult children should make a point of asking about signs of injury. A limp, bruising, or a pained expression while climbing stairs might reflect an underlying health condition. Find gentle ways of exploring evasive answers. Responding to “Oh, it’s nothing, I just fell” with “That’s sad to hear, why did you fall?” can lead to a conversation about other accidents that might reveal a disabling loss of balance or strength.

Look Around the Parent’s Home

Are unpaid bills piling up on a table? Neglect of finances could be attributable to depression or the early stages of dementia. Is dirt and dust collecting in corners? Perhaps deteriorating eyesight accounts for the lost ability to maintain a spotless home. Is the refrigerator filled with food that the parent never seems to eat? Loss of appetite may be a sign of untreated illness or a lack of exercise.

Sheets and towels that need to be washed may be a sign that the parent is too fatigued to do laundry. An odor of urine might point to incontinence. While bombarding a parent with housekeeping questions would likely be viewed as passing judgment, working carefully phrased inquiries into conversations about more pleasant topics might help children understand whether their parents need housekeeping or caregiving help.

Check the Parent’s Medication

Adults who are 65 or older are often taking at least five prescription medications a day. Keeping track of short-term and long-term prescriptions can be difficult. If medications are scattered around the home — a pill bottle next to the bed, one in the kitchen, another in the bathroom — the parent might be forgetting to take them as prescribed.

Helping parents organize their medications and working out a schedule for taking them can reduce the risk that a parent will forget to take a pill or will take the same medication too often during the day. Taping a schedule to the refrigerator or bathroom mirror can help parents keep track of their meds. Getting a parent’s permission to discuss medications with a primary care provider can also reassure children that their parents are not taking drugs they don’t need or that interact in dangerous ways.

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