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DayBreak Articles


The Telltale Signs: Knowing When an Elderly Loved One Needs Help
By Coker Day

The need for home care may come as a result of an illness, injury, hospitalization, or simply the gradual process of aging. Certainly, there are a great many people who remain independent at home into their nineties. And although we may recognize that getting older can diminish us physically, it's still hard to admit when it does get the better of us - especially when it means the loss of independence and placing a burden on others.

That's why it is often up to family members to determine whether their elderly relatives need help at home. Those who are alert to the signs and signals can not only make it easier to broach the subject when the time comes, but help avert a crisis by getting help before one ever occurs.

Just what are the tell tale signs that an elderly person might need help at home? Here are some general categories to keep in mind while you determine if a loved one needs assistance. As you do, please be aware that, although no single sign or symptom necessarily indicates the need for home care, the accumulation of several almost always adds up to the need for some type of assistance.

Food and nutrition.
Good nutrition is important at any age. But our senses of taste and smell diminish with age, and as a result, often make us less interested in food. If your parent lives alone, chances are she's stopped preparing meals the way she did when she had a husband or family. Keep an eye on their eating habits and check the refrigerator and pantry periodically: first, to make sure there's fresh, nutritious food around and, second, to look for items that may have spoiled. The elderly often have a higher-than-average amount of spoiled food and staples that have overstayed their welcome.

Personal grooming/hygiene.
One of the most obvious signs of deterioration is poor hygiene: dressing sloppily; bathing infrequently; the men don't shave and the women don't get their hair done as often as they used to. This often happens after the loss of a spouse and as a result of one's circle of friends shrinking as the years pass. Poor hygiene can also be a symptom of a deeper, more serious problem: chronic depression. Lack of interest in grooming could mean they're become more isolated from friends and family, which can be detrimental to both their physical and emotional well-being.

Housekeeping/home maintenance.
Many people are surprised to find their once-fastidious mothers leaving dishes piled high in the kitchen sink and dust collecting on the furniture. Likewise, their fathers may ignore or delay important maintenance and repair items they used to do themselves. Visit your loved ones often enough to check on housekeeping and general maintenance. It may be worth an ounce of prevention that pays long term dividends: for example, replacing a spotlight that prevents a fall.

Mail//financial matters.
As we get older, it becomes harder for our eyes to read bills and our hands to write checks. What's more, the elderly seem to grow increasingly confused by various billing practices and other complex financial matters as they age. If you see unopened mail lying around and bills that are late and unpaid, it could be a sign that your parent is starting to lose control over finances and other personal matters.

Problems with memory/general confusion..
As we age, our short-term memory becomes duller, while our long-term memory becomes sharper. People like to joke about it, but poor memory can lead to more serious problems, such as forgotten medications, leaving the stove on, and general confusion when outside the home in the community.

Problems with mobility, balance.
For a variety of reasons, many elderly people may find it difficult to walk or even stand without assistance, resulting in frequent falls. If this is happening to your loved one, have a doctor conducts a thorough examination to see if the balance problem is due to dizziness from medication, for example. Also, check the house for obstacles, loose rugs, bad lighting, etc. that may exacerbate the problem.

Unsafe or erratic driving.
The universal symbol of independence for so many of us - the car - is something the elderly will try to hang on to "for dear life," no matter how many mishaps or near misses they may have. If you notice a lot of dents and dings on their car (from hitting others in parking lots, e.g.), that's a sign that someone's having trouble. To be sure, our reflexes and eyesight diminish with age, but they shouldn't be allowed to continue to drive if they are a danger to themselves and to others. Talk about it frankly and explore transportation alternatives in your community. Many home care companies, such as ours, offer transportation as one of many standard services.

Behavioral changes.
As we age, it's natural to lose interest in some of the things we did when you were younger. And it can also bring with it wide mood swings, along with sadness over the loss of peers. Though feeling sad is a normal part of the grieving process, it shouldn't develop into a chronic lack of interest in life or anti-social behavior. So if your elderly family member starts to exhibit wildly uncharacteristic behavior and wide mood swings that persist, you may want to seek professional help.

Of course, there are other ways the elderly can make their needs known. Some come right out and tell us! Or if they don't like to burden others, they may drop subtle hints in conversation, while talking about a problem they were wrestling with, or repeatedly complaining about a particular issue.

In most cases, the best way to tackle the subject of assisted living at home is usually to be open and honest with your elderly family members. If there are disagreements over whether they need help, you can always bring in a doctor to do an assessment and help you decide on the best course of action that will result in keeping your loved one as happy and independent as possible.

Coker Day is founder and president of DayBreak Adult Care Services Inc., an in-home care services company with offices in Lexington SC and Aiken, SC.