Monitoring an aging parent’s health
Each year, projections for the average life expectancy of Americans trend up. There are differences by gender, a man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84; for a woman the average expectation is 86. In addition to these averages from the Social Security Administration, about one out of every four 65-year-olds today is expected to live past age 90, and one out of 10 past age 95.
Other factors affecting life expectancy estimates have allowed many Americans to experience healthier aging, such as advances in medical treatments and proactive changes in lifestyle, yet some variables, such as ethnic background, education and economics, still impact the way certain populations age.
While it is a gift to live a long life and see your children and grandchildren grow up, advancing age brings along with it expected, and difficult, challenges. These challenges afflict not only the aging, but an increasing number of adult children now caring for their parents.
In some cases, caring for an aging parent is an acute event associated with illness or injury. For most, however, it is a gradual increase in the oversight necessary to monitor a parent’s health and well-being as they age. Without an emergency or severe illness, it may still be apparent that the activities and responsibilities of every day life are becoming cumbersome, confusing or simply exhausting. If you have aging parents, even parents in excellent health now, it is beneficial to know what may signal the routine challenges they face, and when assistance is required to manage those tasks.
The true skill is being an informed but sensitive observer. Your own awareness is only part of the story; your parents may not be aware of the changes they are experiencing, or be willing to acknowledge them.
If your parents have been fastidious about taking care of themselves and their home, and now you see lapses in their personal hygiene, grooming or home care, take note. Perhaps, cleaning is a tiring activity; or mom just doesn’t care as much as she used to about having everything in its place. But you can observe if these behavioral changes are apparent, deliberate and intentional, or if they are not even noticed! As you can imagine, there is a difference between a self-determined shift in attitude, and inattentiveness and lack of perception.
If you parents have generally been socially active, have enjoyed the company of friends, had hobbies or regularly scheduled arrangements for entertainment, it will be obvious if their participation has declined. If you know any of your parents’ friends or neighbors they may be able to provide a perspective on your parent’s patterns. It is important to understand the reasons why these activities have tapered off.
Their driving and ability to handle their finances are symbols of independence that an aging parent may guard closely from your scrutiny. Check their car for any new dents or scratches and ask about them in a non-threatening way. Look for any unopened mail that may include bills not being paid.
Changes like these may be due to a change in their physical health or cognition. It is important to determine what is related to normal aging and what may be something else. Maintain a dialogue with your parents about their medical check-ups. At some point, if your parents agree, and you are able, you may want to accompany them to their doctor visits so you can hear firsthand about their health status.
The prospect of needing to help our parents is an uncomfortable notion for many. Everyone has a unique relationship with their parents and even when there has been a very positive relationship, emotions can run high. Balance your feelings by seeking information that will help you take the appropriate next steps.
If you see changes in your parents, even those that are significant, it doesn’t mean it is time to hit the panic button. Importantly, keep the lines of communication open between you and your parents. Show your parents your love by taking appropriate steps to help them age comfortably and securely.