Growing old leads to changes in ability that typically happen over time. Degradation in capability can be so gradual that families may not notice or be aware of their loved one’s reductions in mobility or ability and as a result they may not realize when their loved one has developed a need for assistance.
In some cases, the aging adult may actually hide or cover up their loss of capability out of embarrassment or fear. They can also push back against getting assistance, insisting that they can manage tasks without help, leaving the family unable to decide how to proceed.
Here is an overview of how to identify when an older adult needs caregiving to help you decide which assistive options are best for your loved one.
One of the most common areas of concern for aging adults is their mobility and ability to get around. Gradual decreases in range of motion, speed, reaction time, flexibility, strength and balance can develop so slowly that a family may not notice until an accident or failure occurs. It is far better to try to be observant and watchful as your loved one ages to try to catch loss of ability in any area sooner rather than later.
Observing a loved one while they move about can help gauge their ability:
- Do they take multiple steps to turn around when walking? More than three steps to make a 90-degree turn can be an indicator of decreased movement ability.
- Are they walking by shuffling their feet rather than taking clear, defined steps? This may reflect a loss of balance or strength which could put them at an increased risk of falling.
- Do they show other signs that they feel (either consciously or subconsciously) unstable, such as walking close to walls for support, using furniture to assist with balance, or having a hard time getting into and out of chairs?
Another important area to monitor with an older adult who may need caregiving is their mental faculty. Like physical changes, mental changes tend to come on slowly, often as occasional forgetfulness that begins to interfere more tangibly with everyday life. Is your loved one forgetting important tasks, such as taking medicine or paying bills?
Are they misplacing items? Forgetting appointments? This could be an early sign of cognitive decline. More severe cases that need urgent help from a caregiver go beyond occasional forgetfulness and into the realm of hazards, such as leaving a burner or oven on overnight, leaving the water running, or overflowing a bathtub.
Personal Hygiene Decline
As an individual gets older, they may begin to neglect basic bodily and personal care as these tasks become more challenging or they forget. Some key issues to look for include:
- A family member who begins to regularly have unkempt hair or dirt under their fingernails could indicate that they are having trouble keeping themselves clean on their own. This may be due to arthritic joints, forgetting to bathe, or another issue.
- Failure to apply makeup properly or well.
- Wearing the same clothes every day could mean they are struggling to change their outfits due to the mobility required, an inability to make decisions about what to wear, or even depression.
- Excessively long fingernails and toenails could indicate that they need help operating nail clippers, which require fine motor skills, vision, and flexibility that they may no longer have.
Disconnection and Unfinished Tasks
It is normal for older adults to gradually spend less energy on everyday tasks. What is not normal nor healthy is for them to become withdrawn and disengaged from their lives. Such behavior can be a symptom of depression, or it could indicate loneliness or a desire not to be a “burden” on their family.
Most commonly, this behavior manifests as once-important tasks being pushed to the sidelines. An aging parent’s favorite garden could gradually become overrun with weeds. They may begin hoarding, or food may sit spoiled in their refrigerator as they lose the motivation to prepare food or clean their living space.
They may use the same bath towels and socks repeatedly because they are disconnected from their usual routine of doing laundry (or they are forgetting). Pay attention to tasks that are partially finished or formerly consistent routines that have fallen out of use.
Learn About Caregiving Help in Your Community
Identifying when an older adult needs caregiving is a personalized process, because each individual is different. Caregiver support groups can help families facing this challenge, not only by offering a shoulder to lean on but also by providing families with education and advice. If you suspect that the time for assisted caregiving for a loved one may have come, there are resources available for support and guidance.
The trained and caring staff at Shepherd’s Center of Northern Virginia offer caregiver support groups and a wide array of other resources to help such families, and their older adults to age in place safely. Contact SCNOVA to learn more about the resources available in your area for older adult caregiving as well as opportunities to improve their quality of life as they age.