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Subtle Changes Offer Clues That Aging Parent Needs Help

Richmond Times-Dispatch


Richmond Times-Dispatch

Dr. Marion Somers didn't realize her elderly father needed help until she rode with him during a visit to his home in Naples, Fla.

Somers, better known as Doctor Marion, is a nationally recognized elder-care expert and author of "Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One."

Doctor Marion was surprised when her father's car kept hitting the curb. The incident convinced her that it wasn't safe for him to drive anymore.

"We talked about it and I told him, 'It's one thing if you kill yourself, but you could easily kill someone else.'"

After failing a DMV test, her father handed over his car keys and agreed to sell his car.

"The money from that sale became his transportation budget," Doctor Marion said. "I got him a non-driver's license and called up his friends and told them he couldn't drive anymore so they would need to come to his house."

She also bought her father a three-wheel bicycle that he began pedaling around the neighborhood. "He felt physically better because he was exercising," she said.

Doctor Marion's concern for her father is a concern that many baby boomers with aging parents face each day. According to Pew Internet Research, baby boomers are twice as likely as younger or older adults to have a parent or parents who need help handling their affairs. The first signs that a parent needs help are often subtle.

"People think it's going to be something monumental that you notice," Doctor Marion said. "It's really the small things such as not opening the mail, not watering the plants, cutting back on family engagements, anything out of the norm."

Differences in performance and attitude can vary from person to person.

"They may include everything from how they keep their house to changes in their routine," explained Dan Scott, director of nursing for Beaufont Towers Retirement and Assisted Living Community. "It's hard to catch onto slow, long-term deterioration. Isolation is another concern. People that age have more difficulty getting out."

. . .

Forgetfulness, which adult children often notice, may or may not relate to the aging process, according to Dr. Stanley Furman, who specializes in geriatric medicine in Richmond.

"There is some benign forgetfulness," he explained. "If you [occasionally] forget your children's names, for example, that's normal. If you start forgetting that you have children, that is extreme."

Lapses in memory can relate to other conditions such as thyroid problems, sleep apnea, malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.

"Depression can sometimes look like memory loss," Dr. Furman said.

Dramatic events, such as a stroke, fall or heart attack, are obvious signs that a parent may need extra assistance. Other noticeable signs may relate to nutrition and diet.

"They may not be eating correctly," Scott said. "Older folks want to eat more starch and carbs and less proteins. When they do, they lose muscle mass. Also, a lot of times older adults don't feel thirsty so they don't drink enough water and they become dehydrated."

When it comes to driving safely, aging parents may not want to admit they are having problems behind the wheel.

"Often they will say they are okay with their driving when they aren't because they don't want to lose their independence," observed Scott.

. . .

Admitting there is a problem is the first step.

"Typically, parents are in denial," Dr. Furman said. "There's also denial on the children's part. It's critical that the person admit there is truly a problem."

When adult children begin seeing changes in their parents, they should sit down with them and talk about the changes and why they are occurring.

"Always use 'I' when you talk to them," Doctor Marion suggested. "I am concerned that you are not opening your mail or paying your bills, for example. I see that you need help. I am here to help you. You can't go in gangbusters and take over. They will be fearful that you will put them into an institution. They want to have some control over their lives."

When discussing the situation, use warmth and compassion.

"You should be empathetic," Scott suggested. "Trying to manipulate or force people tends to backfire in the process."

Scheduling an appointment with a geriatrician for a medical evaluation helps both the adult child and the parent in planning for the future.

"When they get a third-party evaluation, the physician can take the blame, especially when we have to take away a driver's license or give them the news that they shouldn't be living by themselves," Dr. Furman said.

. . .

Catching the problem early aids aging parents to maintain their quality of life.

"Sometimes family members are reluctant to force the issue with their parents," Scott said. "People do want to stay independent as long as possible. There are resources in the community that people don't take advantage of, like companion care, home services or assisted care, all of which offer a continuum of care."

The overriding concern should be the physical and emotional safety of the aging parent.

"You need to be in tune with changes and trust your gut," Scott said. "If you find yourself being actively worried about someone, chances are you have a reason for that."


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