When (and How) to Intervene With Aging Parents

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Intervening with aging parents is a delicate balancing act between wanting to help but not intruding upon their independence. The parent-child dynamic changes over time, and making the shift to caregiver can be challenging and confusing. You have always looked to your parents for their care, advice, and guidance, and now the tables are turning.

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Aging comes with inevitable changes—some expected and others a complete surprise. Your parents may slowly decline with almost imperceptible changes like forgetfulness, fatigue, and difficulty with activities of daily living. Or your parents might have a worsening chronic medical condition or have a fall resulting in a broken bone.

Sudden changes in independence can be stressful and overwhelming. There’s no correct answer for everyone, but we have some tips on how and when to intervene with aging parents.

When Should You Be Concerned About Your Aging Parents?

When you should be concerned about your aging parents depends on several factors such as the nature of your relationship, whether or not you’re a long-distance caregiver, and your parent’s personality. The earlier you notice changes, the more effective you can be when you need to intervene. Most people want to age in place, so you must be alert to problems if you want to support this desire.

Falls and mobility issues

Falls can be catastrophic for older adults, resulting in long rehab and disability. If your parent is frequently falling, there is cause for concern. Loss of strength, balance, eyesight problems, medication side effects, and clutter in the home can contribute to falls. It may be only a matter of time before your parent breaks a hip or incurs some other injury.

Poor hygiene

Poor hygiene, such as not bathing, wearing dirty clothes, and other self-care issues, are signs of a problem. Dementia, depression and other cognitive issues, and medical problems can cause poor hygiene. Cleanliness may not seem like an urgent problem, but it usually indicates other underlying conditions. 

Weight loss

Weight loss can be due to several medical and mental health conditions. Perhaps your parent can’t shop for food or can’t remember how to cook. Mobility issues and fatigue could make it hard to prepare meals. Underlying medical issues could contribute to weight loss.

Auto accidents

Even multiple fender benders can indicate that your parent isn’t driving safely. More serious accidents are a cause for concern. Also, if your parent gets lost while driving, it could be a symptom of dementia. Parents are usually very reluctant to stop driving, so your parent may hide that they are struggling. One way to evaluate their driving ability is to go with them driving and observe their skills.

Wandering

Wandering is leaving the house unattended and walking or driving without a destination. People have been known to wander out in the middle of the winter without proper attire, and the consequences can be deadly. When someone wanders, they can get lost and are vulnerable to exploitation and extreme temperatures. Wandering is usually a symptom of dementia.

Medication mismanagement

Medication errors can lead to serious health problems and falls. Missed doses or taking expired medications should get your attention. The problem might be cognitive impairment, poor eyesight, or confusion.

Take a look in your parent’s medicine cabinet for expired medications or ones that are no longer prescribed. If things look disorganized, it is unlikely your parent is taking their medications correctly. Medication mismanagement is more likely if there’s no system, like a pillbox. 

Mismanagement of finances and household tasks

Not paying bills, confusion about accounts, and giving money to unscrupulous individuals are all signs that something is wrong. The cause could be progressive, like dementia or a short-term medical problem contributing to the confusion. Along with financial mismanagement is difficulty with managing household tasks like house cleaning and home maintenance. Over time, the home starts to deteriorate. 

Change in mental health

The confusing part about noticing mental health changes in your parents is that you may think these changes are a normal part of aging. Try to notice if your parent is more sedentary, doesn’t enjoy activities, or seems anxious and distracted.

Depression and anxiety are common mental health conditions at any age, but these conditions can be more challenging to recognize as people get older. Older adults are also less likely to believe in or participate in mental health treatment.  

Isolation

As your parent becomes more confined due to loss of friends and inability to drive, they can become increasingly isolated and lonely. Loneliness is linked to depression and anxiety and can worsen medical conditions. Your parent’s isolation may not be immediately apparent to you and can happen slowly over time.

Examine their lifestyle and the barriers to social engagement. Simple interventions like hiring a caregiver to drive your parents or teaching them technology can help. If there are grandkids, encourage visits and more interaction.

Tips for Intervening With Your Aging Parents

How you intervene with your aging parents is crucial. Your primary goal is for them to accept your help without damaging your relationship. Be prepared for significant resistance and even anger at your attempts to offer support.

Start slowly

If you see a problem, rushing to solve the situation could create resentment. Start slowly by bringing up your concerns honestly and transparently, allowing your parent some time to think about them. Suggest minor changes, such as hiring outside help to assist with chores and other household tasks. Use the aging parent checklist to guide discussions on preparing for the aging process.

Any changes your parents are willing to make are positive, and hopefully, you can build on that.

Use a collaborative approach

A collaborative approach is one of cooperation and mutual decision-making. It involves presenting the problem and talking to your parents about the best way to solve it. By using a collaborative process, you empower your aging parents, giving them a sense of control. You might begin by having a list of proposed topics to discuss.

Speak in specifics

Saying something vague like, “I’m seeing that you’re having problems,” might not be very effective. Try being specific about what you’ve observed, such as, “Mom, I’ve noticed that you are losing weight. Do you know why?” Then you can have a conversation that might reveal more information about the cause of the problem. If you can encourage your parents to be honest about their needs, that’s a good first step.

What Can You Do If They Don’t Listen or Don’t Want Help?

Few things are more frustrating than wanting to help your aging parents when they don’t listen or accept your help. There are some things you can do, but be mindful of your own mental health in the process. It’s easy to get burned out trying to help your parents when they don’t want it.

Be patient

The more you push, the more resistant your parents could become. Try and be patient but persistent in your efforts. Don’t get angry or upset.  Use a calm and practical approach to what you see as problems, and express your care and concern. If the conversation doesn’t go well one day, come back another day to talk about the need for you to intervene.

Ask someone else to help

Sometimes a different voice and perspective might get through to your parents. Ask a sibling, friend, or someone else that your parents trust to talk with them about your concerns. One of the advantages of this approach is that it takes the pressure off of you and might allow your parents to see things from a different perspective.

Act independently of their acceptance

Making decisions despite your parent’s resistance is risky, but it might work. An example would be hiring a lawn care person to mow the lawn or arranging delivered meals. You might have success with this approach, but it may also backfire. So take care in choosing interventions that are more likely to be accepted. If your parents accept the assistance, you can build from there to add more help in other areas.

Contact adult protective services

Contacting adult protective services should only occur if you feel that your parent’s safety is in danger due to self-neglect or exploitation. Within reason, people have the right to make bad decisions. But if in doubt, call your local adult protective services office to discuss the issue. In extreme cases, you could petition the court for guardianship, but this option should be a last resort and only in cases where your parent is in danger.

When and How to Intervene with Aging Parents

Intervening with aging parents shows that you care. Your approach will succeed if you consider your parent’s personality, are willing to be flexible, and know when to back off. The earlier you intervene, the more likely you are to have success in keeping your parents safe and happy.

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