It’s no secret. With age brings mental and physical changes. Some signs of aging are subtle, like the slight change in taste of certain foods. Other signs are more noticeable, like reoccurring aches and joint pains. While each person’s unique health history and genetic disposition play a key role in the effects of growing old, it’s important to have a general understanding of what’s common, what to expect and what could be cause for concern.
Forgetfulness could be a sign of growing older
Forgetfulness and moments of memory lapse could be common signs of aging. Some examples your older parent may experience include misplacing things, missing an appointment or occasional trouble finding words that are “on the tip of their tongue” during a conversation.
Keep an eye out for your parent having difficulty remembering how to do regular tasks, such as taking daily medications or keeping up with hygiene, forgetting recent events or displaying changes in their functional abilities. This could mean your parent may need more reminders, supervision or hands-on assistance, like an in-home caregiver or assisted living.
How to help your parent: When assisting your parent, show patience. They may be frustrated with their own forgetfulness. Creating to-do lists together is an easy way to stay on track of daily routines. Encourage involvement in activities that strengthen the mind and body, like walking. Organization for regularly used items is important. For example, things like house keys, a purse or wallet, and medications should be placed in the same accessible spot each day. Your parent may also have a hard time admitting they need help and refuse assistance. Reassurance and support will remind them that the goal is to help them stay safe and independent.
Maintaining daily routines may be difficult
The desire, energy or ability to stay on top of home maintenance can decrease as people age. You may notice things like mail piling up, more frozen meals instead of fresh food, untidy rooms and small tasks going unaddressed, like replacing broken light bulbs.
You may even notice a lack of energy or interest to stay on top of hygiene, such as skipping daily showers or wearing stained clothes.
However, increasingly unsafe, unsanitary and unhealthy surroundings are signs an aging parent needs help.
“It’s said that it takes a village to care for a child. The same sentiment holds true to care for an older adult who’s experiencing cognitive and functional decline,” said Christina Y. Chen, MD, geriatrician at the Mayo Clinic.
“It takes thoughtful caregivers, friends, family and an involved healthcare system, as well as a keen understanding of what is within our control, what is outside of our control, and doing the best to bring out the best.”
How to help your parent: Assist with daily tasks that seem to be overwhelming. For example, sit with your parent and go over the bills or visit weekly to tidy up the house. If you live far away, consider setting up some bills for autopay or hiring a housekeeping service.
Your parent’s mood may be different following loss
Loss becomes more commonplace as we grow older. It is expected to experience sadness following the death of friends, family or a spouse, but be aware not to overlook signs of depression and anxiety, which often goes untreated in older adults.
How to help your parent: Be patient and supportive during the grieving process. Loss is hard at any age. Make a point to call and check on their well-being. Invite your parent over for dinner or a fun family activity. Consider talking to your parent about grief counseling or accompanying them to a support group. Some places of worship also offer grief and counseling services.
Your parent’s mood may be different following major changes
Frustration or sadness on the heels of retirement or selling the family home is surprisingly common, especially if spurred by declining health or a decrease in independence. Again, be on the lookout for signs of depression and anxiety, which could also manifest as anger.
How to help your parent: Be considerate of their unique grieving process and encourage your parent to engage in what brings them joy. Or, if they are open, introduce them to something new to encourage future-forward thinking. If sadness, frustration or overall discontentment persist, consider talking to your parent about counseling.
Isolation and loneliness can be common for an elderly parent
Declining health paired with a disability or limited mobility can cause an older adult to feel like an inconvenience to others. Because of this, it is common to isolate oneself, consequentially leading to loneliness and eventually depression. Withdrawing from others and showing a lack of interest in things they once enjoyed are telltale signs of isolation and loneliness. You may even notice them napping more or frequently watching TV.
How to help your parent: Monitor this behavior as best as possible, and then engage your parent with an activity known to bring them joy. Start in the home where it is safe and familiar, and then work up their comfortability to venture out in the world. Modify activities according to their abilities. Look for places that are accessible and won’t overwhelm them.
Physical decline during the aging process
Declining physical changes are inevitable. The lens of the eye thickens, stiffens and becomes less able to focus on close objects, like words in a book. Tooth loss becomes more common. High-pitched sounds become harder to hear, making it difficult to understand voices clearly at times. Your parent’s sense of balance may not be as keen as it once was, increasing their risk for trips and falls. Their mobility may be affected due to surgery, joint stiffness or muscle weakness. As unpleasant as it may be, urinary incontinence could be a common sign of aging due to weakening bladder muscles.
How to help your parent: Routine visits to a physician and dentist, staying active, and maintaining a balanced, healthy diet may not stop the aging process, but these actions will help your parent age well and mitigate chronic health problems. Support your parent by encouraging checkups, exercising with them and trying out new, wholesome recipes together.
As you assist your parent, be patient. Ask how he or she would like you to help them. Sometimes even the most well-intended help can spur resistance at first. Stay resilient and don’t hesitate to ask for support when needed.