How to Know if Your Aging Parent Needs a Caregiver

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When will you know when your elderly parents need help? One thing is certain: your parents won't be the ones who tell you they need help!

Seniors have a strong desire to remain independent and in control of their own lives for as long as possible. In their place, wouldn't you feel the same way? The last thing they want is to become a burden to their children or loved ones. Typically, the aging senior will experience a traumatic event or "wake-up call" precipitating the realization that they need assistance. For example, they may suffer a stroke or a serious injury due to a fall; or their cognitive situation, such as the onset of dementia may result in a danger to themselves or others, like leaving an article of clothing sitting on a stovetop burner.

Because you, the adult child, are unable to anticipate your parents' need for assistance until this traumatic event takes place, the emotional distress and the work/life crisis can hit you like a runaway train, making it very painful and difficult to make educated decisions you can become comfortable with. One way to avoid this is to start monitoring your parents' physical and mental abilities today, and research your care options should your parents begin to show signs of needing assistance.

So, what are some of the common indicators that your parents may need some form of assistance or care? Here are some of the telltale signs.

Your parents have difficulty with or are incapable of performing routine activities of daily living (ADLs) such as:

  • Bathing
  • Dressing and grooming
  • Toileting
  • Transferring or moving from place to place (e.g., moving from the bed to a chair)
  • Walking
  • Eating

Changes in their physical appearance may indicate they need assistance:

  • Noticeable weight loss (difficulty cooking, eating, shopping for food, etc.)
  • Sloppy appearance/poor hygiene (difficulty bathing, dressing, and grooming)
  • Black-and-blue marks on the body could indicate they've fallen and are having trouble walking or moving from place to place
  • Noticeable burns on the skin could indicate they've experienced problems cooking

Warning Signs That Your Aging Parent Needs Help

Certain physical clues around your parents' home may be a red flag:

  • The yard has not been maintained as it normally has (difficulty completing regular tasks)
  • The house interior has not been maintained as it normally has (difficulty completing regular tasks)
  • Automobile dents and scratches could indicate impaired driving ability
  • Carpet stains, perhaps caused by dropping and spilling things
  • Urine odor in house (signs of incontinence)
  • Pots and pans with noticeable burn marks could indicate they forgot about food on the stove and left it burning
  • Unopened mail/unpaid bills may indicate difficulty completing regular tasks
  • Unfilled prescriptions (difficulty completing regular tasks)
  • Low food supply (difficulty completing regular tasks)

You may observe some unusual behavior by your parent:

You may notice some of the warning signs that your parent might be developing dementia, Alzheimer's or some other cognitive impairment:

  • Consistent memory lapses
  • Confusion
  • Loss of reasoning skills
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Frequently misplaces things
  • Frequently gets lost walking or driving
  • Repetitive speech
  • Unable to complete a sentence
  • Rapid mood swings or changes in behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Wears the same clothes over and over
  • Cannot recall names of familiar people or objects
  • Loss of initiative

If you believe your parents are experiencing one or more of the above indicators, then the next step is to talk with them about their care needs in such a way that they themselves identify the problem and come up with the solutions.

It's very important that your parents are the ones making the decision to seek help and decide which option best meets their care and assistance needs. Tough decisions such as selling their home and moving elsewhere should be their own and not yours or their doctor's or some other interested parties. Put yourself in their shoes. The decision to move out of their home where they've created a very comfortable, secure environment for themselves over the years is a very traumatic change and must be handled with extreme care and sensitivity.


Mike Campbell is the author of "When Mom & Dad Need Help" and founder of Campbell Consulting Services, LLC, which provides advice to the senior housing and care industry.

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15 Comments

I'm the horrible, bossy, pushy daughter who got fed up with mysterious medical incident after incident with my mom, 1800 miles away. There came a day where my husband & I decided what was to be done. We just caught a lucky moment when she had been scared by her own imagination of what was going on in the dark (sundowners) and laid it out. You are comn up here near us and that's it. I should mention that I had been trying the "let's please work on this together" way for 18 years & getting nowhere. In October we went down, packed her up, put ehat we could on a moving truck, and drove more back in the cars. Yes, it was hard, highly emotional, confrontational, and theatric. But she's rescued from her filth, unsafe conditions, and having to cover up all the time. She's in a senior apartment now with 3 meals a day, nursing staff, and 55 channels on tv. The agony to do it is over now. I think she secretly wanted somebody else to fix it, despite protesting very loudly the entire way. It wasn't neat, clean, or a complete move, but we got what was important: her.
I have to disagree - the financial burden is not the children's. The money to pay comes from the elder's assets and then Medical Assistance. Laws vary by state, so you must do your research.

Caregiving is on a spectrum, so the solution must match the need. Without knowing more details on the reasons you believe your parent needs help, it's hard to comment. Maybe it's twice weekly housekeeping or maybe it's 24/7/365 skilled nursing? Or something in between. At any rate, if your gut is telling you something isn't right, something is really not right. Always listen to your gut.

What to do first - get a socialworker involved.

My mother needs 24/7 supervision due to Alzheimers and other conditions. I am not trained or able to manage someone with progressive brain disease in my home with my family. Nor am I willing to. My kids deserve a life, and that can't happen if they are living in the middle of a dementia ward (our home).

Home is our sanctuary from life.

My mother is in a facility where there is fresh staff that come on duty every shift.
She is safe from herself and the world.
She is sure to be fed, medicated, bathed, changed, and groomed on a schedule.
The people there are trained and physically able to deal with combative elders, and I am not.
Her food is dietetically prepared for her high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and is low fat. I can't cook special meals 3x/day at my house.

She sees a doctor, a geriatric psych, a beautician, PT, OT, dentist right there on site. I don't have to take time off work to run her to appointments. She doesn't have to go outside in the winter and risk falling.

She has a predictable daily schedule, which is really important to dementia patients. This would not be possible at my house.

The facility does her laundry, I do not.

The idea of an inheritance is a myth these days unless the patient was unbelievably wealthy and planned ahead. My mother did not plan ahead, and did not put her money into annuities and trusts ahead of time, so yes, we are going to spend every penny there is on her care. There will be nothing left for us after, and that's the way it is. No sense getting upset over it because I can't change it. We could have avoided this 10 years ago if she'd been willing to work with me & the bank, but she wasn't, so here we are.




I also could not quit my job, abandon my own financial responsibilities, my bills, my family, and our needs to care for my mom. I needed a job before, and I still do. I appreciate the fact there is a facility where I can place her.
Sandwich42plus. AMEN! I would have done the same or I would have moved to them. You are 'right on' in my book!