Is your Aging Loved One Managing at Home? Signs to Watch For and How to Help

By Lisa M. Petsche

It’s often a difficult determination to make: is your aging relative managing adequately on his or her own, or does he or she (the latter will be used from here on) need some kind of assistance?

No matter how difficult it may to be to look after their day-to-day needs, many seniors are reluctant to ask for or accept help, regarding it as an admission of incompetence or an invasion of their privacy. They may also fear being forced into institutional care. Out of anxiety or pride, they often try to conceal any difficulties they’re experiencing as a result of physical or mental decline.

Following are some indicators that your loved one is unable to independently handle all of the activities of daily living.

Grooming
  • Changes in appearance, such as dirty or unkempt hair, ragged fingernails, decaying teeth
  • Inappropriate dress or soiled clothing
  • Body odor
Nutrition
  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Complaints of poor appetite, or loose-fitting dentures
  • Insufficiently or inappropriately stocked refrigerator and pantry
  • Expired or rotting food in refrigerator
Housekeeping
  • Dirty dishes or laundry piled up
  • Accumulation of garbage
  • Excessive dirt or clutter
  • Unsanitary conditions, especially in the kitchen or bathroom
Finances
  • Accumulation of unopened mail, especially bills
  • Major credit card debt or large, inexplicable bank account withdrawals
  • Bounced checks
  • Inability to perform basic banking transactions, including writing a check
Medication
  • Non-compliance with medication regimes – look for prescriptions that haven’t been filled, and unused or expired containers of medicine
  • Lack of an organized system for managing medications
  • Prescriptions filled by a variety of pharmacies
Mobility
  • Difficulty going from a sitting to a standing position
  • Poor balance
  • Poor walking endurance
  • Difficulty negotiating stairs within the home
Safety
  • Recent falls–be on the lookout for bruises or limping
  • Cluttered walkways or stairwells
  • Accidents with household appliances
Energy Level
  • Lethargy
  • Social withdrawal
Mental Status
  • Poor short-term memory
  • Confusion
  • Inability to carry out familiar routines or follow instructions
  • Poor judgment stemming from lack of insight into needs and limitations
  • Suspiciousness
Getting Help

Following are some ways to help, depending on yourloved one’s situation.

  • Arrange for a medical check-up and accompany your loved one. Lethargy, forgetfulness and confusion could be caused by reversible conditions such as infection, malnutrition, dehydration or depression. Request a medication review by her family doctor or pharmacist, since side effects, overmedication or drug interactions might be at the root of difficulties. Ask the pharmacist about available aids for organizing and remembering to take medications. Ensure all prescriptions are filled at one pharmacy.
  • If nutrition is an issue, arrange a dental appointment to have your loved one’s teeth or dentures checked; set up a schedule to take her grocery shopping; stock the freezer with heat-and-serve foods; regularly have her over for dinner; and arrange for nutritional supplements if necessary (consult the doctor or a dietitian first).
  • If vision is a problem, ask the doctor for a referral to an ophthalmologist. If nothing can be done to improve her vision, get her a magnifier for reading small print, and other adaptive items such as a large-keypad telephone and a clock with oversized numbers. List important phone numbers on a posterboard (use black lettering on white), and place it on the wall by her phone.
  • If falls are a concern, perform a safety assessment of the home environment to identify potential hazards – for example, clutter, throw rugs that don’t stay in place, poor lighting, lack of proper stair railings – and do what you can to rectify them. Visit a medical supply store and check out the many products that might make daily activities easier and safer.
  • If financial management is an issue, arrange for direct deposit of pension checks and automatic bill payment from your relative’s bank account. If necessary, have mail redirected to your home. Encourage her to contact a lawyer to assign power of attorney for property to one or more people she trusts.
  • Investigate available resources in your loved one’s community, which might include: personal emergency response systems; telephone reassurance services; grocery delivery services; meals on wheels; volunteer driver programs; accessible transportation; therapeutic day programs; recreational programs; and home health services involving personal care, homemaking, nursing, dietary consultation, physical and occupational therapy and social work. Such information can be obtained from the local office on aging. If your loved one needs more help than community programs can provide and the cost of private-pay services is prohibitive, inquire about senior housing and residential care options.
  • Even if your loved one appears to be managing sufficiently at present, it’s a good idea, especially if she has any chronic illnesses, to start learning about resources in the community that might be of future value. This can help to avert a crisis, and if one does arise, you’ll be ready to assist her in making informed decisions and necessary arrangements.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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