When you reach middle age, it is often the case that you begin to ease up your worries about your children. If they are not already out of the house, they are growing up fast and will soon be on their own. While you still worry about them, you are not beset with the same responsibilities for their care.
However, a common shift at this stage of your life is suddenly finding that, though you are no longer worrying about your children, you are now worrying about your parents.
As your parents age, their care needs often become more acute. They are less capable of undertaking strenuous physical activities, even basic ones like caring for the yard or repairing things around the house. They may forget harmless matters, like someone’s birthday or where they put their glasses. They may also forget potentially harmful things, like locking the door at night or turning off the stove. You begin to worry about their driving or ability to handle their financial affairs.
Losing physical strength and having memory problems are relatively common conditions that come with aging. Debilities often come on gradually, so you may have time to adjust and take on more oversight responsibilities for your parents. But what about their health? What should you be especially watchful for to ensure your parents are properly cared for?
Common Medical Problems Faced by the Elderly
Here are some common medical problems that aging parents may encounter:
Chronic Diseases: Conditions like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and hypertension are prevalent among the elderly. Regular monitoring, medication management, and lifestyle modifications are essential to manage these conditions effectively.
Cognitive Decline: Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are significant concerns for aging parents. Even milder issues, like memory loss, confusion, and difficulty with daily tasks, can significantly impact their independence and quality of life, affecting how well they eat and whether they exercise enough to remain mobile and healthy. Early detection and appropriate care are crucial in managing these conditions.
Falls and Mobility Issues: Loss of muscle mass affects balance. With weaker muscles and bones, falls become more common. Falls are one of the biggest concerns to geriatric specialists because of the potential for sustaining disabling injuries from head impacts and broken bones. It is vital to create a safe living environment, encourage exercise, and discuss assistive devices with healthcare professionals and your parents when falls occur.
Sensory Impairments: Loss of vision and hearing can affect the overall well-being of aging parents. Regular eye and hearing tests, appropriate aids, and creating other communication strategies can help manage these impairments.
What Caregivers Should Watch Out For
When caring for aging parents, watching for signs of potential health issues is essential. Here are some key things to pay attention to:
Social Withdrawal and Mood Changes: Loneliness, depression, or anxiety can profoundly impact mental and emotional well-being. Regular social engagement and open communication may alleviate these issues. However, some medical problems, including infections and adverse reactions to medications, will manifest themselves in behavioral changes rather than physical symptoms. If changes are noticeable, make an appointment with the doctor so you can determine the cause of the change and address it.
Sudden Weight Loss or Gain: Significant weight changes often indicate underlying health problems, malnutrition, or medication side effects. Talk to your parents to see if you can determine if something has changed. Monitor their eating habits, with particular attention to ensuring they are getting enough calories and consuming a balanced diet. Consult a healthcare professional if you cannot discern a reasonable explanation for the change that can be remedied.
Hygiene: Take note of whether your parents are regularly showering and keeping their hair, nails, skin, and teeth clean. Thorough washing can be difficult or even exhausting for the elderly to do on their own, and they sometimes “skip” necessary hygiene steps that can lead to infections or other health problems. Arrange showering help, pedicures, salon appointments, or other services if necessary.
Medication Mismanagement: Aging parents may struggle with remembering to take their medications or taking incorrect dosages. Help them set up a medication schedule and use pill organizers and reminder alerts. Involve healthcare professionals to see if you can simplify their medication regimen. Read labels to ensure there are no contraindications with respect to their combination of medications or anything in your parents’ diets.
Regular Doctor’s Appointments: Regular medical check-ups are crucial to monitor overall health and diagnose any unknown conditions. Even when you are very attentive, you may be missing things a medical professional would notice or ask about.
Areas Where You Can Step In
In addition to proactively monitoring what is going on in your parents’ lives, here are some areas where you may have to take over some responsibilities:
- Assist in scheduling and organizing appointments.
- Accompany them to appointments to ensure clear communication with healthcare professionals, be aware of all health issues, and keep track of medication changes.
- Keep track of their medical history and share any relevant information with the doctor about what you have observed.
- Advocate for appropriate screenings and tests based on their age and risk factors.
- Create a medication list, including names, dosages, and schedules.
- Organize medications in pill organizers and use reminder apps.
- Regularly check medication expiration dates and dispose of expired drugs safely.
- Keep track of refills so your parents do not run out of essential medications.
- Communicate with healthcare professionals about any concerns regarding adverse reactions or harmful drug interactions.
Prepare documentation ahead of time rather than waiting for a panic situation. Involve your parents in decision-making when they are mentally sharp and have time to think calmly and clearly about what they want. Essential documents include:
- Advance Healthcare Directive/Living Will: These documents (sometimes the same) allow a parent to express healthcare preferences in various situations. Your parents can appoint someone they trust as a healthcare proxy, having legal authority to make medical decisions on their behalf.
- Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment (POST): This form, which is available as an online template from the State of Idaho, is a “fill in the blank” form kept in your parents’ medical files. It expresses a person’s preferences regarding the degree of medical intervention a physician may perform in a life-threatening event, such as heart stoppage. In the absence of other legal authority, physicians are bound to adhere to the instructions in the POST, although a healthcare proxy has the authority to override a POST.
- Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA): This document designates a trusted individual to handle financial and legal matters. Although not a health form, it is critical. The stress and confusion of handling financial matters can significantly harm an elderly person’s health. The DPOA can protect older people from being scammed, which can devastate them psychologically and affect their ability to afford medical care.
Caring for an aging parent is not easy and requires attentiveness, compassion, and proactive care. By being aware of common medical problems, watching out for potential issues, and taking concrete steps to protect your parents’ health and well-being, you can provide your aging parents with the support they need to age gracefully and comfortably.
At Northwest Specialty Hospital, we work with families to give aging patients the best healthcare available. With open communication and a collaborative effort, we can assist you in making sure your parents get care when needed and that changes in health management are appropriately addressed. Contact Northwest Specialty Hospital to find a healthcare provider, and let us partner with you in caring for your aging loved ones.