Imagine entering the house of an elderly loved one and being greeted by a foul-smelling odor that appears to have no identifiable source. Unmarked boxes and teetering piles of paper are stacked in alternating piles as high as the ceiling. Your loved one, dressed in stained nightclothes, half-smiles in a sheepish manner and you see that bits of food are lodged in their teeth.

This scene is very shocking to you considering that the last time you visited your loved one—just a few months ago—both their house and their physical appearance were nearly immaculate.

Self-neglect is a common problem among elderly people that is both disturbing and, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Rush University, potentially life-threatening.

The study

In a study of almost 10,000 elderly people, it was discovered that elder self-neglect was responsible for a five-fold increase in premature death for elders.

This heightened mortality risk was most prominent in the year following the diagnosis of self-neglect.

An unrecognized problem

Elder self-neglect is a more prevalent dilemma than most people recognize. In fact, most research points to self-neglect being the most common form of elder abuse.

Self-neglect comes in a variety of flavors. Some elders stop taking their medications, others cease cleaning their home, still others stop bathing and grooming. The Rush University study found that elders who have a social network that is either lacking or nonexistent is more prone to falling into a pattern of self-neglect.

There are many other things that can cause an elder to stop taking care of themselves including, dementia, depression, disease, poverty, and isolation.

What this means for caregivers

Even if they don't yet require outside care, be sure to keep an eye on your elderly loved ones.

If they begin to show signs of self-neglect like dirty clothes, a cluttered house, or a constantly disheveled appearance, intervention may be necessary. If you decide to intervene, make sure that you plan your actions according to the demeanor of the elder and the extent of the self-neglect.

There are often local agencies that you can contact to help assist an elder who is not taking care of themselves. Adult Protective Services are duty-bound to investigate every claim of abuse and neglect that is reported to them. They have experience in dealing with self-neglecting elders and have a number of resources available to them to help an elder in need.

Other AgingCare articles you may be interested in:

20 Warning Signs Your Parent Needs Help at Home

Preventing the 5 Kinds of Elder Abuse