How to Know if Your Aging Parent Needs a Caregiver

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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