Parents are the touch stones of our lives. Warm memories of learning to ride a bike, toss a baseball, or swim for the first time, not only bring us back to a moment in time growing up. They also take a vivid picture of parents at a much younger age, when they were likely more active and energetic. While many now-much older parents may still remain active, healthy, and social well into their later years, there are those seniors who may be losing a bit off of their “fast ball” and slowing down a bit in a number of ways. It’s a challenge that both aging parents and their adult children face.
Perhaps a parent has become more forgetful, or started to repeat themselves. Maybe they display anger or sadness unexpectedly (or with more frequency). You may see traces of depression or deep sadness in someone who was previously happy. Sometimes a parent’s appetite just isn’t the same, and that can prompt concern that they’re not getting enough nutrition to stay healthy. They may also get confused by routine, simple tasks. If they’re getting lost easily while driving, you may be wondering if it’s time to take the car keys away.
What you may fear is a type of dementia (an abnormal, severe decline in mental function that interferes with daily living). The World Health Organization expects that dementia numbers will triple in the next 30 years, but, eating healthy, exercising regularly, avoiding risky drinking, and not smoking, along with controlling blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight could change that. Staying active socially with friends helps, too. There are many causes of memory loss, including some prompted by another medical condition or medication. Some symptoms of aging are normal, but some are not. A doctor can help to know the difference. That’s why it’s key to observe changes that your parent might start showing in their daily behavior.
Here are some “check points” to guide you as to when to talk to your parent — and importantly, their doctor:
- Observe how your parent lives. Are they still bathing regularly? How well do they clean their house? Notice if dishes pile up, if food is left to spoil, or if the yard is overgrown.
- Are they safe in their own home? Are pots left on stove burners? Can clutter cause slips or falls? Have they fallen in the house (or elsewhere)?
- Have they lost interest in eating, or lost weight?
- Are they able to keep track of their medications? Can they stay on schedule with dose amounts and times?
- Is their ability to focus and remember things getting harder? We all forget things sometimes. But if they’re often confused, forgetful, unable to find the words, overly repetitive, or easily agitated, take notice.
- Can they no longer drive safely or confidently? Getting lost going someplace familiar, could signal that there’s something seriously wrong.
- Do they have trouble seeing well, or walking easily?
- Do friends or activities that they once enjoyed now hold little or no interest?
Try to talk openly but gently to your parent about how they’re feeling, and what worries you. Reassure them that you care about them, love them, and will be there when they need you. These are tough conversations to have. Consult your parent’s doctor when the time is right. (Your parent may have to provide permission to do so.) Their doctor will be able to run a number of tests to rule out some things, and see what next steps might be taken to help them in this next stage of life, whether it be just normal aging, or something more serious. Ask about local medical and social resources/support, both for your parent, and you, as an adult caregiver.
By Lisa Miceli Feliciano