Visits and phone calls present opportunities to assess how older family members seem to be doing, particularly if they live alone or are relatively independent. Small changes that occur gradually over time can be hard to spot, especially when you are in regular contact with your loved one. But if several months go by between visits, changes can be more apparent.
But how can you tell whether the changes you’re noticing are enough to warrant a possible intervention? As you spend time with older family members, consider keeping an eye out for some of the subtle indicators that health or cognitive status may have changed. Here are some areas to look for, according to experts in memory and restorative care:
1. Mobility: Check to see if your loved one seems physically weaker than when last you saw them. Are they having difficulty doing things that they would normally be able to do?
As people age, they might experience joint pain, a lack of energy or a reduced range of motion that can prevent them from taking care of themselves properly. These mobility challenges might also increase the risk of falling.
CC Andrews, president of Quantum Age Collaborative, suggests watching your loved ones use the stairs and move around their home to detect any difficulties they may be having. Check their car to determine if they're using it and whether there are any dings or dents that weren't there the last time you saw it. This could indicate a recent fender bender which may—or may not—be an indication of changing capabilities.
If it seems like your loved one has aged out of their home, it might be time to discuss whether they should downsize or move in with a more able-bodied family member. You might also discuss alternative modes of transportation available to your elder, whether it’s getting rides from one of their children, a neighbor, community services, or ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft.
2. Day-to-day Tasks: Scan the surroundings to get a sense of whether your elder is keeping up with routine responsibilities. Are they opening mail? Are there sufficient groceries in the refrigerator and pantry? Do pets appear to be well cared for?
If you notice your loved one is falling behind on normal household duties, take a closer look at their health and mental status. They might simply be too busy to keep up with certain household chores. But if the house was formerly tidy or they used to be punctual in paying bills, this change could signify a change in your loved one’s health or cognitive status.
Andrews also suggests checking the medicine cabinet to find out whether medications are being used, whether there are empty prescription bottles, and whether any medicine has passed its expiration date. Speak with your family members and the elder themselves to find out what's been going on in their life to make a more informed assessment of why any perceived changes might be happening. It could be that they just need an extra hand to get some routine chores done.
3. Personal Hygiene: Sometimes a decline in personal care can be an indicator that your family member needs support.
A change in your loved one's hygiene habits could indicate depression. Other signs of depression might include unexplained aches and pains, weight loss, a decrease in appetite or an overall lack of energy. Speak with your loved one to find out what might be causing the changes you’ve noticed. If you suspect it might be depression, help your loved one get help from a trained professional.
Another possible cause of a decline in hygiene might be the early stages of Alzheimer's, social worker Esther Heerema tells verywell.com. "If having a nice hairstyle has been important to them and you notice a decline in that area, Alzheimer's may be to blame," Heerema explained.
"Sometimes people with dementia aren't aware that they need a bath or that they have an offensive odor," Heerema continues. "They may forget to use deodorant and sometimes the ability to detect or correctly interpret odors declines." You can watch for similar changes in the state of a loved one's clothing or his or her oral hygiene habits. Pointing out these changes in a loving way might be all your family member needs to make a change. Or you might need to schedule a doctor's appointment for further assessment.
4. Cognition: Observe your loved one’s mental status. Some memory loss can be normal for an elder. Be on the lookout for confusion, disorientation, and trouble performing routine sequences (making a sandwich, for example).
Give Grandma or Grandpa a break if they can't remember the names of all 25 of their grandchildren or they mix up whose birthday is coming up next. They have a lot to remember after so many decades of living, after all. However, if you notice your elder family member having trouble recalling a recent conversation or how to do simple tasks, talk to them to find out if there have been any changes that might be causing physical, cognitive, or emotional stress.
Poor sleep patterns or dehydration can cause dramatic cognitive symptoms, so you might work with an older person on improving sleep habits. You might also encourage them to make drinking water a higher priority throughout the day. If these changes don’t help, consider talking to your loved one’s doctor. A physician can ask questions and screen for dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can be a precursor to developing Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Having a conversation with your loved one about their ability to care for themselves can be difficult, especially if there is a strong desire to continue living an independent life. When possible, speaking with local resources like family members, social services, their local church, the government office on aging, the Alzheimer’s Association—and perhaps your loved one’s physician—can help to broach the subject and offer suggestions that can really make a difference. There are often services available that will deliver groceries, help with cleaning and cooking, or provide companionship to homebound family members.
Care centers also offer solutions, including long-term, short-term and memory care options that preserve residents' independence and dignity while offering a safe environment with trained health care professionals available 24/7 to meet your loved one's needs.
To find out more about how long-term, short-term and memory-care communities can help, contact Superior Care Home.