As your parents get older, how can you be sure they're taking care of themselves and staying healthy?
When you visit your parents, start by considering these questions:
1. Are your parents able to take care of themselves?
Pay attention to your parents' appearance. Failure to keep up with daily routines — such as bathing and brushing teeth — could indicate dementia, depression or physical impairments.
Also pay attention to your parents' home. Are the lights working? Is the heat on? Is the yard overgrown?
Any changes in the way your parents do things around the house could provide clues to their health. For example, scorched pots could mean your parents are forgetting about food cooking on the stove. Issues such as failing to pay bills, having problems shopping and neglecting housework also might be signs of depression, dementia or other concerns.
2. Are your parents experiencing memory loss?
Everyone forgets things from time to time. Modest memory problems are a fairly common part of aging, and sometimes medication side effects or underlying conditions contribute to memory loss.
There's a difference, though, between normal changes in memory and the type of memory loss that makes it hard to do everyday things such as driving and shopping. Signs of this type of memory loss might include:
Asking the same questions over and over again
Getting lost in familiar places
Not being able to follow instructions
Becoming confused about time, people and places
3. Are your parents safe in their home?
Take a look around your parents' home, keeping an eye out for any red flags.
Do your parents have difficulty navigating a narrow stairway? Has either parent fallen recently? Are they able to read directions on medication containers? When asked, can your parents explain how they set up or take their medications?
4. Are your parents safe on the road?
Driving can be challenging for older adults. If your parents become confused while driving or you're concerned about their ability to drive safely — especially if they have experienced a moving violation or an accident — it might be time to stop driving.
5. Have your parents lost weight?
Losing weight without trying could be a sign that something's wrong. Weight loss could be related to many factors, including:
Difficulty cooking. Your parents might be having difficulty finding the energy to cook, grasping the necessary tools, or reading labels or directions on food products.
Loss of taste or smell. Your parents might not be interested in eating if food doesn't taste or smell as good as it used to.
Social issues. Your parents might have difficulty shopping or have financial concerns that limit buying groceries.
Underlying conditions. Sometimes weight loss indicates a serious underlying condition, such as malnutrition, dementia, depression or cancer.
6. Are your parents in good spirits?
Note your parents' moods and ask how they're feeling. A drastically different mood or outlook could be a sign of depression or other health concerns.
7. Are your parents still social?
Talk to your parents about their activities. Are they connecting with friends? Have they maintained interest in hobbies and other daily activities? Are they involved in organizations, clubs or faith-based communities?
If a parent gives up on being with others, it could be a sign of a problem.
8. Are your parents able to get around?
Pay attention to how your parents walk. Are they reluctant or unable to walk usual distances? Have they fallen recently? Would a cane or walker help?
Issues such as muscle weakness and joint pain can make it difficult to move around as well. If your parents are unsteady on their feet, they might be at risk of falling — a major cause of disability among older adults.
There are many steps you can take to ensure your parents' health and well-being, even if you don't live nearby. Try to:
Share your concerns. Talk to your parents. Your concern might motivate them to see a doctor or make other changes. Consider including other people who care about your parents in the conversation, such as close friends.
Encourage regular medical checkups. If you're worried about a parent's weight loss, depressed mood, memory loss, or other signs and symptoms, encourage your parent to schedule a doctor's visit. You might offer to schedule the visit or to accompany your parent to a health care provider — or to find someone else to attend the visit. Ask about follow-up visits as well.
Address safety issues. Point out any potential safety issues to your parents — then make a plan to address the problems. For example, a higher toilet seat or handrails in the bathroom might help prevent falls. If your parents are no longer able to drive safely, suggest other transportation options — such as taking the bus, using a car or van service, or hiring a driver.
Consider home care services. You could hire someone to clean the house and run errands. But discuss this with your loved one first.A home health care aide could help with daily activities, such as bathing, and Meals on Wheels or other community services might prepare food. If remaining at home is too challenging, you might suggest moving to an assisted living facility.
Contact the health care provider for guidance. If your parents dismiss your concerns, consider contacting the health care provider directly. Your insights can help the health care provider understand what to look for during upcoming visits. Keep in mind that the health care provider might need to verify that he or she has permission to speak with you about your parents' care, which might include a signed form or waiver from your parents.
Seek help from local agencies. Your local agency on aging — which you can find using the Eldercare Locator, a public service of the Administration on Aging — can connect you with services in your parents' area. For example, the county in which your parents live might have social workers who can evaluate your parents' needs and connect them with services, such as home care workers.
Sometimes parents won't admit they can't do something on their own, and others don't realize they need help. That's where you come in. Make sure your parents understand the problem and your proposed solution.
Remind your parents that you care about them and that you want to help promote their health and well-being, both today and in the years to come.