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Signs Your Aging Loved One Needs Help

Signs Your Aging Loved One Needs Help

Many of us are providing care for our loved ones from a distance. The way that our culture has changed means that work and other obligations have moved us farther away from our hometowns and thus our parents. In fact, the National Institute on Aging ( has estimated that over three million adults in America are “long distance caregivers.”  There are some challenges that come with trying to stretch across the miles to help.  The first challenge is getting a clear picture of our loved one’s needs and then second, getting your loved one to agree that they need help.  We will be dealing with the first challenge: how to read the signs that the elder you love is slipping and needs a hand.

Why is it hard to get a clear picture?

Often, elders will not be forthright about needs.  Reasons for this include: not wanting to worry or bother their family, not interested in having their children try to help them with what is “my responsibility” and sometimes they just don’t want to acknowledge that age is taking their strength and capacity.  So how do you get that clear picture of what is really going on in your aging loved one’s life?

“I saw something funny when I was visiting mom and dad.” 

The simple way to get a better picture of one’s life and to get more accurate information than what you get during phone chats, is to visit.  When you, as a family member, visit, often you can notice signs that warrant a closer look at how well your loved one is doing overall.

Clutter and mess.

This is especially true if they were good housekeepers. Cleaning and de-cluttering takes decision-making. Unnatural clutter and mess could be a sign of dementia. Clutter can present a tripping hazard and increase the risk of fire and mold. The other possibility is that your loved one has other physical limitations that are preventing them from managing life independently, like keeping house.  If the clutter and mess is excessive, here is a blog on hoarding that might help:

Piles of mail and late bills.

Forgetfulness and inability to self-manage will often show itself on the credit report. Elders who are not able to manage at home independently will frequently forget to check mail, even for weeks.  They may not pay bills and then become anxious when late notices arrive, only to forget and move on.

Neglected plants and animals.

When you visit, are there unwashed pets?  Multiple pet accident stains on the floors? Dead or dying plants? All of these signs point to loss of ability or memory to manage a home.

Weight changes.

If your loved one looks thinner or feels thinner when you hug them, it may be a sign of worsening health or just forgetting to eat. Weight gain can be a cue if they have had changes in their ability to get around or if they are diabetic.

Poorly kept hair, and body.

Taking basic care of hygiene is one sign most people won’t miss. If your love one has unkempt hair, smell bad or other signs of poor hygiene, it could be a warning sign for dementia or even depression ( One of the symptoms of depression is poor self-care and depression in elders, especially those with chronic illness is very high.

Signs of fires.

Home fires can be disastrous for older adults and are more common than they are in younger people. Look for burned pots, discharged fire extinguishers, or smoke alarms taken apart.  If they are having issues with their home heating system, address it with them so they will not take unsafe measures to heat the home during the cold months.

Signs that they may need to give up the car keys.

Things that you may see you when someone is losing their ability to drive safely are small dents and dings, especially on the passenger side of the vehicle. While driving, they may tailgate, go below the speed limit, react slowly to changes, become confused and lost easily, drift from their lane, or mix up the gas and the brake pedal.  How to convince a loved one to turn in the car keys is a whole other issue.

There’re many community resources available to help individuals who are losing their ability to live on their own safely.   And for out-of-town family, knowing there are resources available is a huge comfort.  Hiring a home care agency to come in for even three hours a day can make a huge difference in keeping someone safe at home. In cases where elders need more help and coordination, senior care managers can help bridge the gap between the family out of town and their loved one in town.