10 Clues Your Aging Parents Need Help

Maybe you’re planning a visit to see one or both of your aging parents after a period of not seeing them. Like a lot of adult children of elderly parents, you may worry about how they’re managing and whether they might need assistance. If that’s the case, your next visit to see them can be a valuable opportunity to gauge how they’re doing.

Perhaps you won’t notice anything new or out of the ordinary during your next visit to see your parents. However, it’s possible that you’ll spot worrisome clues of trouble or see crises unfolding before you eyes. Take the time during your visit to be a bit of a double agent, sniffing out the following eight potential signs of trouble. You're not being nosy, you're being proactive and smart.

1. Give a big hug.

Look for:

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

  • Obvious weight loss. Anything from depression to cancer to difficulty shopping and cooking can be behind a noticeable loss of weight.

  • Increased frailty. If you can notice something "different" about a person's strength and stature just in a hug, it's noteworthy. Pay close attention to how your loved one walks (shuffles more?) and moves (rises easily from a chair? has trouble with balance?), comparing these benchmarks to the last time you were together.

  • Obvious weight gain. Injury, diabetes, and dementia (because the person doesn't remember eating and has meals over and over) might be the cause. So can money troubles that lead to fewer fresh foods, more dried pasta and bread.

  • Strange body odor. Sad to say, changes in personal grooming habits because of memory trouble or physical ailments might be noticeable on very close inspection. Look, too, for changes in makeup, hair, or the ability to wear clean clothes. Personal care assistants can help make sure your parent is able to continue their normal grooming and hygiene habits.

    SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

2. Riffle through the mail.

Look for:

  • Unopened personal mail. Everybody leaves junk mail alone, but few of us can ignore a good old-fashioned, hand-addressed letter.

  • Unopened bills. This can be a sign that your loved one is having difficulty managing finances -- one of the most common first signs of dementia.

  • Letters from banks, creditors, or insurers. They may be routine business. But it's alarming if they're referring to overdue payments, overdrawn balances, recent accidents, or other worrisome events.

  • Thank-you messages from charities. Older adults are often vulnerable to scammers, and even those who have always been fiscally prudent are vulnerable if they're having trouble with thinking skills (a common sign of Alzheimer's disease). Some charities hit up givers over and over, and your loved one may not remember having donating the first time.

3. Take a drive -- with Mom or Dad behind the wheel.

Look for:

  • Nicks or dents as you enter and exit the car. These can be signs of careless driving.

  • Whether your loved one fastens his or her seatbelt. Rote basics are usually, but not always, remembered by someone with mild dementia.

  • Signs of tension, preoccupation, or being easily distracted. Is your loved one no longer willing to drive at night? Or on highways? Is it hard for him or her to talk to you or listen to the radio and also pay close attention to the road?

  • Signs of impaired driving. Tailgating, slow reaction time, going consistently below speed limit, confusing gas and brake pedals are signs to watch for. See 8 more ways to assess someone's driving.

  • Dashboard warning lights. Does the car have sufficient oil, gas, antifreeze, windshield-wiper fluid?

4. Inspect the kitchen -- fridge to counter to cupboards.

Look for:

  • Perishables past their expiration dates. Your loved one might be buying more than he or she needs, as we all do -- but you want to be sure there's a reasonable ability to ditch the old stuff (rather than use it).

  • Multiples of the same item. Ten bottles of ketchup or a dozen different vinegars might indicate he or she can't remember from one shopping trip to the next what's in the cupboards at home.

  • Appliances that are broken and haven't been repaired. Check the microwave, coffeemaker, toaster, washer, and dryer -- any device you know your parent used to use routinely.

  • Signs of past fire. Look for charred stove knobs or pot bottoms, potholders with burned edges, a discharged fire extinguisher, smoke detectors that have been disassembled. Accidents happen -- but accidental fires are a common home danger for older adults.

  • Increased takeout or simpler cooking. If someone who used to cook a lot no longer does or has downshifted to extremely simple recipes, the explanation could be a change in physical or mental ability.

5. Look around the living areas.

Look for:

  • Piles of clutter. Especially if this is a change for your loved one, being unable to throw anything away may be a sign of a neurological or physical issue. Papers that spill onto the floor are a particular tripping hazard.

  • Cobwebs, signs of spills that haven't been picked up, or other signs of housekeeping that's more lax than it once was. Spills are a common sign of dementia -- the person lacks the follow-through to clean up after a mess. Or your loved one may have physical limitations and simply need more housekeeping help.

  • Clutter and grime in the bathroom. Often those who make an extra effort to tidy for guests in main rooms neglect the bathroom, where a truer picture of how the person is keeping up with things may be reflected.

  • Signs that your loved one has cut back on activities and interests. Is a hobby area abandoned? Are there no longer engagements written on the hall calendar? There are many reasons people cut back, but dropping out of everything and showing interest in almost nothing is a red flag for depression.

6. Notice how the other living things are faring.

Look for:

  • Plants that are dying, dead, or just gone. How well other life is looked after may reflect how well your parents can look after their own lives.

  • Animals that don't seem well tended. Watch out for dogs with long nails, cat litter boxes that aren't changed routinely, dead fish in the fish tank, or any animal that seems underfed or poorly groomed.

7. Walk around the grounds.

Look for:

  • Signs of home maintenance problems. Look for discolored siding or ceilings that might indicate a leak, gutters choked with leaves, broken windows or fences.

  • Newspapers in the bushes. Check for papers that were delivered but ignored.

  • Mail piled up in the mailbox. Watch for this indication that your loved one doesn't even retrieve it regularly.

8. Ask eyewitnesses: Talk to those in your loved one's circle.

Look for:

  • Stories that reflect your loved one doesn't get out much. "We don't see her much lately." "She doesn't call anymore." "She quit bridge club."

  • Stories that reflect that your loved one has complained about health or needs extra assistance getting basic chores done. "Has he had that heart test yet?" "We were worried the day the ambulance came."

  • Hints of concern in their voices. Listen for comments about your loved one -- about his or her health, pets, anything.

9. Observe your loved one's mobility.

Trouble walking and moving around can make it tough to complete routine activities of daily living, making in-home care a much-needed help. Mobility issues can have far-reaching effects on your loved one’s physical and mental health.

Look for:

  • Trouble getting around the house. Does your parent struggle to get up and down stairs, shower or get in and out of the front door?

  • Bruises, new complaints of pain, or other evidence of a fall. Falls are all too common among aging adults, and they can be an urgent warning sign that your parent is no longer able to get around without help.

Limited mobility can lead to a host of other problems, from malnutrition to social isolation. An in-home caregiver can help your loved one get where they need to go, with grocery shopping trips and other errands and provide valuable companionship.

10. Watch for signs of forgetfulness.

We all forget things sometimes – the name of that book you read, whatever it is you walked into the room to get. But increasing incidents of forgetfulness over time may indicate that home care help is needed.

Look for:

  • Forgetting important items on their to-do list. Does your parent forget essential to-dos like taking medication or paying bills?

  • Forgetfulness that interferes with their everyday activities. f your parent is unable to remember routine tasks like taking out the garbage or how to prepare a simple meal, it’s a good indication that they should see a physician about their memory problems, as these may be signs of cognitive decline.

What to do next

If you’ve noticed that your aging parent isn’t able to take care of themselves or their homes the way they used to, it may be time to consider getting them additional help, such as in-home care or assisted living. These options are especially relevant if you are helping to care for elderly parents from a distance. Caring.com provides consumer reviews for thousands of in-home care services and assisted living communities to help you find high-quality care.

With contributions from Laura Dixon.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 1 year, said...

My mom is in her mid seventies and lives with us. She is completely capable of taking care of herself in this environment. Unfortunately she seems to be becoming addicted to the television. It literally runs 24 7. She won't walk her dog period. She won't water the plants unless we ask and then it's iffy. She stopped most housework but will still do laundry sometimes. She cooks though and still drives in the daytime but only. A block or two. She does communicate when called by her brother's and sisters who seem to be much more active even though they are her age or older. She ALWAYS says no first when we invite her to join us or other family members away from the house. We lost my husband's parents I. The last two years and she was friends with my mother in law. I can tell it's affecting her. Mom says she need a buggy or a cart or something to be comfortable walking, shopping or visiting festivals which are abundant here and she used to do with us. I want my mom to have her independence as long as she can and I see her muscles getting weaker and weaker and her stiffness getting more and more causing so.e pretty severe back pain bouts. We argue now about the TV taking over her life and spending way too much time in bed, not getting enough strength and stretching. But like now I feel terrible after the fighting. What can I do to help my mom maintain her beautiful independent self without destroying our relationship?

over 2 years, said...

Are there any Independent Living Communities in Florida that do not charge more than $50,000 to ENTER a CCRC guaranteed life care living space with more than 800 square feet of beginning living area? Do they have an activity calendar, a pool, ameal plan? What are their names? What are the costs up front?

over 3 years, said...

We routinely do 'detective work' for mom, who luckily enough lives in a small apartment. But at 92, with early AD-related dementia - we will be putting support/assisted care in place soon, depending on several factors - I always 'check the litterbox', 'look in the fridge', ''sniff the hamper and wastebasket'. I run a standard drill, and now I do find that after years of daily housekeeping, mom's skills in these areas - as well as balancing the checkbook, running the wash, are deserting her. So, my sister and I (depending on whose turn it is) get to work and do what needs to be done. Mom used to fuss at us, about this. Now, she has finally admitted 'things aren't the way they used to be with me, I guess. Because of that word I hate.." (She means dementia) I try and stay upbeat about helping and doing, as I take care of the chores that she no longer can manage. And pretty soon her little house is neat again. I cannot stop the dementia and progress of Alz. But I can make sure she is comfortable and clean, for the time remaining that she will still live alone.

over 3 years, said...

I appreciate reading your insightful article. Thank you.

over 3 years, said...

Numerous tips and hints about even small changes to look for that might indicate problems.

over 3 years, said...

In my mid-80's, I see a number of these in myself. But I'm OK -- it's just 'stuff' that has problems.

over 3 years, said...

I paid particularly close attention because I AM THE PARENT just recently left on my own. My husband passed away 11/20 and I am not coping with nor am I caring very much about my life without him. I was his sole caregiver for years, and now I'm lost and not functioning well without him to care for. Fortunately, I am in good health. I am hoping time will help me to move on and "get a life"!

about 4 years, said...

This really sheds some light on my family. I was born to older parents (Mother was 42 and father was 54), so I have a lot of older relatives. Thank you for this post. I saw this picture earlier on and found myself at this page. http://www.memes.com/meme/173548 have a nice day.

over 4 years, said...

I'm in my 40s and can claim a few of these items in my own home, For me it's because I'm extra busy this time of year.

over 4 years, said...

This is a great article. I lost my mother in August after a three year fight with cancer and the onset of Alzheimer's. Luckily I was able to care for her at my home with my wife. We set up a hospital room in our living room. We cared for her until she shattered her hip and was forced to go to a full time care facility. I wish I had read this article before she got ill. All of you with elderly parents read and take note of this well written article.

over 4 years, said...

I love the layout of this article!! It is so easy for anyone to follow and understand. It highlights really simple things to look for that alert us to possible serious problems that may exist. As is the case with everything in life, the earlier you identity problems the quicker you can take action. It made my heart smile to see such a thoughtful article.

over 4 years, said...

OMG... we haven't brought in the hose or sand pails from SUMMER! they are peeking out of the snow.... I can't keep up with the cleaning...or the bills... which reminds me I just came up here to pay some on line and I played scrabble instead!

over 4 years, said...

ALL of us, young, old or infirmed, are responsible for our care and management. S/Oldtimer - 81 yrs old

over 4 years, said...

Thank you for the helpful hints to watch for as our parents age. After all, they took care of us and now it's our turn to take care of or assist them!

over 4 years, said...

Great article! I failed the test miserably...20 areas out of 30 I am having difficulty with at age 71 due to physical disabilities. I was always very independent and physically active until 9 years ago when I was misdiagnosed, had an unnecessary surgery that left me disabled (physically challenged). It can be very frightening not knowing where this will end so I live life one day at a time, although I still live in my house, take heavy medications for chronic pain and have had to change my lifestyle completely. It has taken more than several years to accept that I can only do what I can. I do have bad days mentally and physically and have some memory problems that are not related to dementia or Alzheimer's I have had the experience of taking care of my dad in my home, who had severe dementia with the help of a CNA and has since passed away. I wish I had had some of this info then. Donnalee- I hope you are getting the professional help that it seems you need since your posts are difficult to follow and are all over the board. Best wishes and good luck.

over 4 years, said...

These are things we don't think of but very helpful

over 4 years, said...

Great tips! Reading through this article, I realized again how our parents really start turning into kids as they grow older. I mean, this is how you'd watch or should I say "spy" on children when they're still small and now adult children are the ones who need to do it to make sure their aging parents are ok and that they can still get by without long-term care services. Thanks for the helpful/very useful post.

over 4 years, said...

Great article and very true! Just went thru this with my mom... Pay attention to them, the way they paid attention to you when you were a kid.

over 4 years, said...

Yes, poor dental health has a direct correlation with heart disease, and poor cardiac outcomes. Be sure to keep your teeth clean and as healthy as possible!

over 4 years, said...

anonymous; I'm glad to see you're going to get your teeth fixed rather than give the money to your son; one of the last things that happened with my mom was she let her grandson have the money she'd just gotten to get her teeth fixed and it wasn't too long after that she was gone, probably because of that; I think I've heard that unhealthy teeth can actually cause heart and kidney problems

over 4 years, said...

anonymous - My advice to you is :get your teeth fixed, pronto. Unhealthy teeth can contribute to many other nasty conditions. My wife and I no longer "loan" money to our offspring. We love them, but they will just have to wait until we are six feet under or scattered at sea to get our money..if any is left.