Carol Silver Elliott

How do I know when my aging parent needs help?

Who ever imagined themselves being referred to as an “adult child”? Yet, for many of us with aging parents, that’s a term we have come to understand. We adult children often find ourselves in the position of juggling the competing needs of both children and parents, not always in a way that feels successful. One of the questions we often ask ourselves, and as professionals we often hear, is “How do I know when my parent needs my help?” and “How do I know how to help, where to turn and what to do?”

In my own life experience, this realization happened in a dramatic way. As the child of older parents, I lost my mother when I was quite young and my dad was dealing with issues of aging while I was in my early 20’s, with small children and a full time career that found me living nearly 1,000 miles from my father. My dad used to call me many times a day. One day, though, his speech began to sound slurred and he told me he had called the operator to connect his call, that he had difficulty dialing the phone. It was clear to me that this was a crisis and required immediate action — and that is just what I did.

Not all of us are presented with such clear cut circumstances. We live busy lives and maybe mom or dad is different, but not all that different. Or we see that things have changed but they are refusing our help and/or intervention. What are the things we should look for and what are the steps we can take?

Many early warning signs are not difficult to see. Some of them relate to overall living conditions. For example, if we visit our loved ones and see that the refrigerator is filled with spoiled food or, alternatively, that the cupboards are bare, there may be an issue. Overflowing piles of unopened mail and late notices on bills can also indicate a change in someone’s overall health status.

When we are with our loved one, other personal signs can be quite telling. For example, are they having difficulty getting out of a chair or walking? We want to look for signs of weight loss, changes in grooming and personal hygiene, which can also indicate a problem. We want to observe whether there is confusion and disorientation, as well as whether there are changes in personality and demeanor.

If you are seeing warning signs, the first place to start is with your loved one’s physician. If you can accompany them to that physician visit, so much the better. Understanding their health at this point in time can make all the difference. Sometimes the solution can be more help in the home, making sure meals are prepared and medications are taken. Sometimes home is no longer an option and other alternate settings should be considered.

Geriatric Care Managers, now called Aging Life Care Professionals, are experts who can help you as well, providing assessment, consultation, education and even family coaching. The care manager can be the “surrogate family” for those who are at a distance or cannot help for other reasons. Their expertise can make the difference in your loved one’s safe aging process.

How do I know that? Calling a Geriatric Care Manager in my hometown saved my dad’s life. The care manager visited him, accompanied him to his doctor and we found that he had been using some old prescriptions and some new ones, mixing and matching medications in a way that compromised his health. Weeks later, after an emergency hospitalization and some short term rehab, he was home and he was fine. We brought in home health to manage setting up his weekly medications and an aide for both companionship and to be sure he ate properly (his idea of a good meal was a cookie and a glass of Coke!). As a result, he had eight more good years at home.

Don’t wait! If you need help there are many resources out there. Call, ask questions and help your loved one to age well.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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