FAQ: What Is a Functional Assessment?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What is a functional assessment?

Expert Answer

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at BetterHealthWhileAging.net. She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

In medicine and gerontology, a functional assessment is an evaluation of a person's ability to manage tasks and activities that are usually necessary in daily life. These tasks include the activities of daily living (ADLs), which refer to basic self-care such as dressing and getting around the house, as well as instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), which are more mentally complex skills such as managing grocery shopping and finances.

Functional assessments can help professionals do the following:

Diagnose and stage cognitive problems, such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia

Identify the impact of worsening physical diseases, such as heart failure and COPD

Diagnose delirium, a state of acute mental confusion that can be the only outward sign of a life-threatening illness

Figure out what kinds of services or other assistance an older person needs in order to safely remain at home

Figure out what level of in-home care -- personal care or nursing assistant care -- an older person needs on a day-to-day basis

For frail older adults with multiple medical problems, geriatricians often use functional assessments to help prioritize which medical issues to focus on. Many adults also benefit from a functional assessment prior to hospital discharge, which can help planners support a safe transition back to home.