Recognizing When a Senior Loved One Needs Help

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Now and then, you forget where you left your keys. Occasionally, you inadvertently place the milk in the pantry and the cereal in the fridge, and overlook that cup of coffee you reheated in the microwave.

Busy people under pressure tend towards forgetfulness, but it usually subsides in accordance with decreasing levels of stress. How often do you forget where you left your keys on a Sunday afternoon or confuse the fridge and pantry on a Saturday morning?

Things are different when it comes to recognizing the signs of stress and its effects on a senior family member or friend. Dad misplaced his keys again; for the third time this week, Mom left the burner on well after she finished the food she prepared. We may see these signs or not, depending on how often we visit or how close we live to our senior relatives. Sometimes, our loved ones withhold the information, neglecting to tell us about recent lapses in memory or difficulty with managing daily tasks (some cover for a spouse too), afraid of what actions their family members may take. We may see these signs and jump to conclusions, worrying about Alzheimer’s when it could be something else, or we may see these signs and ignore them, not ready to deal with the consequences or make the necessary decisions.

Wherever you are, whatever your role, keep these guidelines in mind if you are concerned about a senior family member. At times, a gut feeling may be the catalyst for pursuing things further. Go with it, rather than ignoring it, and consider these additional warning signs to confirm the need for action:

Signs of dementia/Alzheimer’s

The Alzheimer’s Association’s Know the 10 Signs is an excellent resource for anyone who is anxious about memory loss and what it means. Read the entire list at the link above; a few are listed below:

  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Decreased/poor judgment

When to get help: Don’t cry Alzheimer’s at the first sign of forgetfulness. However, if you’ve observed several of these warning signs and they have occurred consistently over a period of time (weeks, months) with no sign of improvement, take action. Another good marker: when the forgetfulness impairs the individual’s ability to successfully manage ADLs and IADLs (more on that below). Schedule an appointment with the family physician and discuss your concerns together.

Signs of difficulty managing ADLs and IADLs

ADLS are the activities of daily living, basic self-care tasks like bathing, grooming, dressing, using the bathroom, getting in and out of bed, and eating. IADLs are the instrumental activities of daily living, such as buying groceries, preparing meals, paying bills, arranging doctor’s appointments, and communicating with friends and family. Any number of issues may contribute to a person’s ability to manage these daily to do’s: exhaustion due to caregiver burnout (if your Mom is caring for your Dad, for example), illness, fatigue, chronic pain, depression, grief, Alzheimer’s, infections, decreasing mobility, vision loss, or hearing loss.

When to get help: When any of these issues have prevented your loved one from bathing or paying bills for an extended period of time, to the detriment of his/her well-being and that of a spouse or partner, step in and offer support. Consider bringing in home care or housekeeping services; suggest a mobility aid like a cane, walker or motorized scooter; or schedule respite care.

Signs of elder abuse

Elder abuse (sexual, financial, physical, emotional or mental) is a serious matter, and it can happen to anyone, even at the hands of family members or trusted friends. Seniors who live at home alone are particularly vulnerable. There are physiological signs, like withdrawal, paranoia,  depression, shame, and avoidance; and physical signs like broken bones, bruises, or weight loss.

When to get help: Immediately. If you see any of these signs, don’t delay. Call the Elder Abuse hotline (get the number for your state’s reporting site at and report the incident(s).



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