A holiday health check for aging parents

  • Holiday dinners and get-togethers are a good time to check in with aging relatives to see how they are doing.

    Holiday dinners and get-togethers are a good time to check in with aging relatives to see how they are doing. File photo

  • Teri Dreher

    Teri Dreher

By Teri Dreher
Special to the Daily Herald
Posted11/18/2018 7:00 AM

More than 90 percent of Americans will gather with their families for Thanksgiving. While it's generally a joyful occasion, for some adult children, all that togetherness can bring a jarring realization that their parent isn't quite who they used to be.

Perhaps dad keeps repeating himself. Or mom's once-tidy home is dusty and cluttered. You wonder why you haven't noticed before, but in all fairness, it's not something we want to see.


However, the earlier you catch a problem, the more quickly you can address it. This Thanksgiving, when you spend time with elderly loved ones, be observant. Look for some telling changes in behavior, especially these eight signs that your parents may need help:

• Forgetfulness and confusion: Forgetfulness is part of aging, but if a parent keeps asking the same questions, is grasping for words, or seems confused over how to perform familiar tasks, it needs to be checked out.

• Unexplained weight loss: Similarly, we do lose some muscle mass as we age, but significant weight loss can signify a number of illnesses. Is your parent eating? Interested in food?

• Changes in home maintenance habits: Stacks of dirty dishes, piles of unopened mail and dramatic changes in housekeeping routines indicate a potential problem.

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• Loss of interest: Has your parent stopped doing his or her favorite activities, like book club, church or bingo? Fallen out of touch with friends? Try to determine the reason behind their isolation.

• Poor personal hygiene: Besides inadequate bathing, this might evidence itself as wearing the same clothes multiple days or not bothering to change out of pajamas.

• Mood swings: Some of us tend to become more irritable as we age, but dramatic mood swings and angry outbursts may indicate a deeper problem.

• Problems with balance and mobility: Look for changes in gait, leaning on walls, trouble rising from chairs, and unexplained bruising -- it may be related to falls.

• Damaged belongings: Broken eyeglasses, scorched pans, dented bumpers … these may signify that your parent is having trouble navigating through the day.


You spot a problem, now what?

First, don't panic. Not all problems indicate dementia or other serious medical problems. Sometimes, it might be as simple as dehydration, an infection or a side effect of medication. But you won't know until you investigate.

Often, the best first step is a gentle heart-to-heart with your loved one. Ideally, you'll get buy-in that it's time to see the doctor. From there, you can get further evaluation as needed.

If the consensus is that your parent needs living assistance, take heart in the fact that you have more options than ever -- and that there are resources available to help you through the process. Physicians, elder care attorneys and patient advocates are all there to help you make the best decision for your loved one.

Here's wishing you a joyous, worry-free Thanksgiving with family and friends. Hopefully, all will be well. But in the event that something comes up, remember: you're not in this alone.

• Teri Dreher, RN, CCRN, iRNPA, BCPA, is an award-winning RN patient advocate and a pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, today she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates, the largest advocacy company in the Chicago area. She was awarded her industry's highest honor, The APHA H. Kenneth Schueler Patient Advocacy Compass Award, in 2015. She is among the first in her industry to earn the credential of Board Certified Patient Advocate (BCPA). Her 2016 book, "Patient Advocacy Matters," is now on its second printing.

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