Elderly couple walking on a path in a park. Label Do my parents need help?

Do My Aging Parents Need Help?

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You have noticed some changes in your parents’ behaviour and you wonder: “Do my aging parents need help?  Because changes in health might be slow and gradual, it can be difficult to determine when help is needed.  

In families with close relationships, parents and adult children may discuss changes that occur with aging and transition. They talk about the future and share expectations about supporting each other. Many older adults, however, do not want to be a burden to the younger generation, and might not ask for support. 

The following are some signals that might indicate to you that your parents need help:

  • You have concerns about safety. A parent has unexplained bruises, trips or falls, and driving is a concern.
  • Others, such as neighbours or relatives, express concerns to you.
  • Forgetfulness and confusion are more apparent. A parent forgets to turn off the stove or to take medications, misses appointments, fails to pay bills, or becomes lost in familiar territory.
  • Personal hygiene is not at the same level as before.
  • You are worried that your parent isn’t eating nutritiously (too small an amount or variety of food, or weight gain or loss).
  • Your parent is isolated, not as sociable as in the past, doesn’t go out much.
  • Household maintenance and housekeeping are deteriorating.
  • Your parent is showing changes in mental or emotional health. He or she is more irritable or shows changes in personality.
  • You notice an increased use of alcohol.
If you see few or minor changes

If you’re uncomfortable with the changes you have noticed, then you need to talk to your parents, other family members, and friends.

It may be best to request some one-on-one time to have this conversation.  Be sensitive to your parent’s sense of dignity and independence. Don’t immediately suggest a list of changes your parent “has to make.” Even though you are acting out of concern, this may feel like a threat to your parents, who have been making their own decisions for decades.

Ways to help

You can suggest getting some home help on a regular basis.  Perhaps getting a program like Meals on Wheels two days a week will help with nutrition and improve your parent’s overall energy. Maybe there is a lawn care service in the area that can take on some of the more demanding jobs.

Think about giving some services as a gift. You and your siblings can contribute to cover the costs of monthly maid services or grocery delivery. Taxi vouchers or accounts with driving service could help solve the problem of getting to the stores, or being able to keep a doctor’s appointment.

If you see several changes and you feel worried

However, if you have serious concerns for your mom or dad’s physical safety, you could contact their doctor and express your concerns. Doctors will not discuss your parents’ health status without their permission. But,  you can have a conversation or send a letter outlining your concerns to give a more complete picture of what is going on. You can be another voice that helps to keep your parents safe, and get the care and services they need.

What is the “Right Thing” to do?

Many adults become more concerned as their parents get older. They want to do the “right thing,” but they are not sure what is “right.” When you notice that your parents are showing signs of frailty or decreasing capability in managing the affairs of daily life, you might be tempted to rescue them. For example, you might urge them to move closer to you, with the good intention of being more available to them. Will such a decision work in everyone’s best interests? Sometimes what seems at first glance like the best decision may not be in the long run.

Spend some time thoroughly assessing exactly what is underlying the need for help. Has there been an acute medical event: heart attack or stroke? Are the long-term effects of chronic illness affecting your parent’s ability to care for himself or herself? Be specific about the type and amount of assistance that is needed. Sometimes, minimal help with very specific tasks can make a profound difference! Remember, the key is to maintain the independence of your parents for as long as possible.

Here are some ideas to help you know that you are doing the “right thing” and “doing things right.”

Accept Differences

You and your parents may have different values, opinions, and attitudes. Be sensitive to differing views, and recognize that not everyone will agree.

Respect and protect privacy

Some conversations involve sensitive issues such as financial information and personal health history. Engage in respectful conversations with your mom, dad, siblings and other important people in your parent’s social networks. These discussions may be difficult, as everyone will likely be experiencing various degrees of uncertainty, vulnerability, anxiety, and stress brought on by the changing circumstances and role relationships.

Involve significant others

Include those people in your parents’ network who care about them. These people may be willing to help out in ways that you might not have considered. Maintaining social contacts and interests improves the quality of daily life for older adults, as it does for anyone.

Foster independence

Offer choices, and always allow full participation in decision making and planning. Even people with mild to moderate cognitive impairment can make decisions and express their preferences.

Take Action

(1) Complete the checklist:
Know When Parents Need Help

(2)  Talk to your parents

Learn how to have a conversation with your parents that is more likely to produce cooperation than conflict.  Because communication is so important — and can be challenging — we have several articles on our website.

(3) Find the services

Check into the health and social services available in your parents’ community.

Seniors Information Services

For a pdf copy of this article, click here.

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