Helping older parents stay happy and healthy

If you’re fortunate enough to have one or both parents still living, you may have noticed a role reversal taking place in your relationship. Remember the days when mom shuttled you to the doctor whenever you were sick?

Now, it may be you who’s driving her to her medical appointments. Perhaps you’ve become even more involved in managing her healthcare needs, serving as her healthcare proxy, moving her into your home to care for her, or even having to select a long-term care facility for her to live in.

Whatever the case, it’s natural to feel challenged — and, yes, intimidated — in the role you’ve undertaken. But if you stay positive and proactive, you’ll be in a great position to advocate for your parents’ optimal care. And, really, what better way is there to say “Thank You” for all they’ve done for you over the years?

The following recommendations will help you understand what may be happening to your parents as they age.

Stay vigilant to sudden changes. Typically, sudden changes arise from sudden problems. Your elderly father who becomes confused one week but was alert and oriented the week before, or becomes unsteady walking and starts falling, is likely experiencing an acute problem — an infection, medication side effect, or perhaps, a heart attack or stroke.

Investigate the source of gradual decline. A host of conditions can cause gradual decline. However, before jumping to the conclusion that Alzheimer’s disease is the culprit, recognize that your parent may be experiencing an altogether different problem: a vitamin B12 deficiency, an under-active thyroid, Parkinson’s disease or depression, to name a few.

Recently, I was told of an elderly woman living in a nursing home whose family, assuming she had dementia, had moved her there after she had gradually stopped speaking. After a doctor’s examination, and performing a brief procedure on her, she was back to her former lively and communicative self.

A miracle? Not exactly. The doctor had simply removed bullet-sized pieces of wax from her ears. She’d stopped speaking because her ears were too plugged to hear.

Know your parent’s medicine cabinet. Familiarize yourself with the medications your parent takes: what each one is for and how often they take them. Make sure you notify each doctor your parent visits of all the medicine they take, including over-the-counter products. Ask what side effects you might observe from each medication.

Discourage ageist attitudes. Simply put, ageism is prejudice against the elderly. It exists in many forms, but can be particularly damaging to an older person’s self-esteem when it assumes that all of their woes are age-related.

Address not just symptoms, but emotions, too. There is disease and then there is a lack of ease, security or well-being. which can manifest itself in a myriad of emotions in an elderly person: fear, grief, boredom, embarrassment and sadness among them. The fact is, these emotions can be every bit as debilitating as disease.

Strive to maximize your parent’s quality of life. No matter our age, we all want to enjoy life to the fullest and have the capability to do the things we want to. Improving the enjoyment of life and functional ability are the cardinal goals of geriatric care.

Sometimes, it’s the small gestures that have the most profound impact.


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