8 Warning Signs Mom and Dad Are Getting Old

If you're heading home for the holidays, you might see signs that your parents are getting on in ways that are worrying. Click to enlarge this image. iStock Photo
iStock Photo

You may notice some changes in your parents over the holidays. A senior care specialist points to eight warning signs that Mom and Dad might need some help.

Holidays are a time when a range of emotions get stirred up. Like homemade cranberry sauce and stuffing, emotions are often a mixture of ingredients. Excitement, joy sadness and stress can all be part of the family recipe.

Many adult children must face a changing reality and confront their own anxiety and grief as their parents lose strength and independence. These changes are often more prominent around holiday time, particularly for adult children who live a distance from their parents. It's easy to overreact when you haven't seen your folks in a while and they appear distracted, confused or frail.

How do you differentiate changes in behavior that are part of normal aging vs. illness or decline? Holidays can provide an opportunity to observe your parents and identify ways to help them live as safely and independently as possible. In order to best care for your parents, you must first know what to look for and recognize the warning signs that your parents need help. Here are eight of the most telling signs.

1) Change in eating habits/weight loss

As people age they may lose interest in cooking, especially if they live alone. My mom, who used to cook a four-course meal every night, is now happy with a frozen dinner or take out. In addition, loss of taste or diminished energy can affect appetite. Unexplained weight changes can also be a sign of depression or illness. Understanding the cause of weight and appetite fluctuations will help you determine whether there is cause for concern.

2) Out-of-the-ordinary forgetfulness

If your dad can't find his glasses, you probably don't need to worry. But if he forgets that he wears glasses or gets lost on a familiar route home, something more serious may be going on. Memory loss – the out of the ordinary kind – can be a warning sign.

3) Neglected personal hygiene and cleanliness

Your once fastidious mom now looks disheveled; the trash is piled up, or there is rotting food in the fridge. Are the light bulbs out and the grass overgrown? The home may not be safe due to poor lightning or fall hazards. An inability to properly care for oneself and one's home may be a sign of health-related problems.

4) Decrease in socialization and activity level

Pay attention to your parent's energy level and mobility. Is your otherwise active mom more sedentary and passive? Does your dad seem disinterested in activities that used to be part of his daily routine? In addition, as people lose loved ones, such as a spouse or a close friend, they can start to feel isolated or depressed. Ongoing engagement with friends, family and community is particularly important for emotional and physical well-being as people age.

5) Significant mood changes

Angry outbursts? Sullen withdrawn behavior? Or perhaps mom is just feeling blue. Depression often goes unrecognized and untreated among seniors who may be reluctant to reach out for help. Don't attribute uncharacteristic mood changes to old age. Observe your parents and ask how they are feeling. Encourage mom or dad to seek medical help if there are unexplained changes in their mood.

6) Difficulty driving

Are there dents on the car, a pattern of fender benders or increased agitation and distraction while dad is behind the wheel? Unsafe driving puts not only your parent at risk, but other drivers and pedestrians as well. Many people limit driving as they age, such as avoiding highways or driving at night. Taking the keys away should be the last resort. If that becomes necessary, consider alternative means of transportation so your parent does not become isolated.

7) Misuse of prescribed medications

Does your parent have a system of remembering to take their medication each day? Have their prescriptions expired? Is mom or dad aware of potential side effects and drug interactions? Misuse of prescribed medicines may lead to deteriorating health and in some cases, a trip to the emergency room.

8) Mishandling finances

Are there unpaid bills piling up? Did dad forget whether he paid the taxes? Is mom struggling to understand where the money went? It may be difficult to get a handle on your parent's financial welfare, particularly if they are tight-lipped about money. Losing the ability to pay bills can be a sign of being overwhelmed or something more serious, like dementia.

Observing unexpected changes with your parents can often lead to alarm. Look for behavior that's uncharacteristic and deviates from the norm. Gathering information, as calmly and objectively as possible, is the first step toward being an effective caregiver. You don't have to go it alone. Getting the support and information you need early on can help you navigate the unexpected twists and turns along the caregiving journey.

Jody Gastfriend, VP of Care Management at Care.com, is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 25 years of experience in the field of eldercare.