Do you often feel that you worry too much about your aging parents? Perhaps other family members or friends chide you for being “codependent” or “over-protective.” The truth is that you have some pretty good reasons behind your increasing concern. Aging is often accompanied by an array of physical, emotional, and mental changes that pose health and safety challenges to our elderly loved ones. But, once you identify these challenges, it becomes much easier to manage them.
Let’s look at five of the most important.
1. Diminished Safety in the Home
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three Americans over age 65 falls each year. Once an elderly person falls, the risk for another fall doubles. Broken arms, wrists, and ankles and fractured hips send millions of seniors to emergency rooms and hospitals. Traumatic brain injuries from falls can be life-threatening, especially for older adults who are on blood thinning medications.
Maintaining an awareness of your elderly parent's physical capabilities and living environment increases the chance that you’ll notice safety risks before accidents occur. Does Dad seem to lose his balance more often? Has Mom stopped taking her daily walks? Muscle weakness, arthritis, and medications can all affect balance and mobility. Stairs in the home, lack of handrails, broken sidewalks, and floors covered with loose rugs or clutter all present safety hazards when your elderly parents are living on their own.
2. Undiagnosed Medical Conditions
Consistent observation of your aging parents allows you to compare how they appear today with their condition in the recent past. A sudden loss of weight can indicate more than just a decrease in appetite. Mom might be in the early stages of dementia, or she could be dealing with an underlying metabolic or cancerous condition.
The American Psychological Association reports that, “85 percent of older adults have at least one chronic illness: Almost 50 percent have arthritis, 40 percent have hypertension, 30 percent have heart disease, 12 percent have diabetes.” Undiagnosed urinary tract infections are especially common in the elderly. When left untreated, these bacterial infections can progress to sepsis, a serious condition that can progress to life-threatening septic shock.
3. Depression in the Homebound
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, homebound seniors have an especially high risk for depression. The elderly represent nearly 20 percent of the suicides in the U.S., with the highest suicide rates in males 80 years and older.
When depression is left untreated, it can result in a series of physical health problems. Side effects of certain medications can contribute to depression, as do living alone and social isolation. Physical conditions that increase the risk for depression in the elderly include:
- Heart disease, stroke, and hypertension
- Chronic pain
4. Potential for Alcohol Abuse
The body’s ability to process alcohol changes with age, so even if Dad is not drinking more now, his ability to handle it may present a problem. Perhaps Mom has started to treat her insomnia with a few glasses of nightly wine, or maybe she turns to alcohol to cope with the grief of her husband’s recent passing.
Alcohol abuse is one of the eight leading causes of death for the elderly, according to the National Institute on Aging. Five percent of senior men, and one percent of women, have alcohol abuse and dependency issues. This increases the risk for car accidents, falls and fractures, malnutrition, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, heart problems, and a decline in cognitive functioning.
5. Impaired Driving Abilities
Expressing your concerns over an aging parent’s diminished ability to drive can lead to an extremely tense conversation, fraught with defensiveness, denial, and anger. The loss of independence your parent feels when asked to give up a license can feel very threatening. But if you notice Mom loses her way more often, has trouble reading traffic signs, drives faster (or more slowly) than is safe, or gets sleepy behind the wheel due to her medications — it might be time to have that difficult discussion. Your ability to regularly evaluate driving skills when caring for aging parents protects their lives as well as the lives of countless others.