Aging people are people in transition. The loss of family members and friends, a change in living arrangements or finances, retirement, the loss of driving privileges, even the death of a pet are lifestyle transitions that require the entire family'’ attention. Ideally, our elders will ask for our help during times like these, but, as family members have learned, this may not happen. In fact, one aging parent might “cover” for the other, or one aging spouse may decline assistance from the other because he or she feels ashamed and powerless.
Know What To Look For
Things may seem normal on the outside. Some changes are barely noticeable. Once in a while we all forget details or put things off, but when a pattern of neglect develops, it may be serious. Remember, dementia (mental deterioration) is not a normal part of aging. Sharpen your observational skills, and look for patterns of consistent neglect within the following contexts:
- Basic tasks – difficulty in walking, dressing, talking, eating, cooking, climbing steps, or managing medications.
- Hygiene – infrequent bathing, unusually sloppy appearance, foul body and/or mouth odor.
- Responsibilities – mail is unopened, papers are piled up, checkbook is unreadable, bills are unpaid, bank account overdraft notices are accumulating, prescriptions are unfilled, phone calls aren’t returned, cooking pots and pans look burned, refrigerator interior has foul odor, food supply is low, home interior and/or exterior is unkempt, laundry is piling up, automobile has new dents.
- Health – weight loss, changes in appetite, problems swallowing, fatigue, burns, black and blue marks (possible signs of falling), hearing loss (look for signs of lip reading and talking loudly), seems withdrawn without reason, incontinence (bet-wetting), spilling and dropping things (check carpet for stains), complaints of muscle weakness, insomnia or excessive sleeping, dehydration.
- Isolation – lack of interest in outside friendships, activities, or hobbies, keeps curtains drawn day and night, has little access to transportation, lives in another city or state and lives alone.
- Attitude – sadness, display of verbal or physical abuse, talk of being depressed and feelings of despair, abuse of alcohol or drugs, paranoia, refusal to communicate, unusual argumentativeness, a recent emotional or medical crisis.
- Cognitive functions – consistent forgetfulness about where things are, getting lost while walking or driving, confusion, loss of reasoning skills, difficulty answering questions, inability to find the right word, use of repetitive words or phrases, severe personality changes, wandering, inability to recall names of familiar people or objects, inability to complete a sentence, forgetting how to use simple, ordinary things such as a pencil, forgetting to close windows, turn off the stove, and lock doors, loss of sense of time.
If some of these warning signs are present, and you are beginning to question your loved one’s ability to make choices and decisions, do not scare yourself and other family members into thinking that these are the early stages of dementia. Overreacting and jumping to conclusions create communication friction and unfounded anxiety.