What to Look For When Visiting an Elder
1. Weight Loss. There are several obvious, telltale signs of health decline in an elder. The most noticeable and obvious is a dramatic weight loss. The multiple causes of weight loss in an elder include:
- Dementia, which makes food preparation too complicated, causing people to simply forget to eat or think they already ate, and loss of appetite
- Physical ailments making it difficult to prepare food, such as arthritis pain and vision loss
- Underlying diseases that interfere with appetite, like cancer, kidney disease, depression and heart failure
- Some medications which can suppress the appetite
2. Changes in Mental Status. I can’t stress enough that confusion and forgetfulness are NOT part of the normal aging process. Depression and dementia like Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as medication reactions, dehydration, blood sugar issues, and other physical ailments can cause changes in mental status that should be evaluated and treated promptly. Many of us experience “senior moments” when we forget a name, where we put our car keys, or why we walked into a room. With healthy aging we can typically retrace our steps to find or figure out what we forgot. An elder who is displaying a change in mental status like confusion, forgetfulness, paranoia, irritability or sadness should not be treated as “just getting older”, but evaluated for underlying health issues that can be treated and managed properly.
3. Unsteady on their Feet. Similar to weight loss and changing mental status, a loss of balance can indicate an underlying disease, physical ailment, or medication side-affects. It is crucial that balance issues be evaluated and addressed, because fall-related injuries can be devastating, even life threatening for an elder. For example, one out of five people who fall and suffer a hip fracture die within a year of their injury.
What to Do Next?
So you’ve successfully picked up on the signs and symptoms identifying things have changed with an elder. Now what?
1. Work together with other family and friend caregivers to initiate a conversation. It’s crucial that this be done with the utmost respect, showing care and concern for the individual as an elder and an adult. Choosing words carefully can prevent a difficult conversation from becoming confrontational. Share observations, facts, and avoid using “why” questions which can put the other person on the defensive. Begin sentences with “I”, “me” and “we” as opposed to “you”.
2. Insure that the underlying conditions potentially causing symptoms such as weight loss, confusion or loss of balance are investigated by a health care professional.
3. Evaluate the current living conditions of the elder. Can they safely remain independent in their home? In the neighborhood? Do they have a local support system in case of an emergency?
4. Explore the available resources for your elder by contacting the local Area Agency on Aging.