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Seven Signs That an Older Loved One May Need Help

elderly man talking with his doctor

The end-of-year holiday season is behind us and with it the festive gatherings with family and friends. It is not unusual during the holidays to spend extended periods of time with people we don’t see frequently. Did you notice some changes in an older loved one that might have you concerned?

Changes and adjustments are normal for all of us during the course of our lives, but sometimes there are behaviors and changes that warrant a closer look. Concerns about an older loved one’s well-being are normal. Striking the right balance between fostering independence and ensuring safety can be a struggle for those of us who are part of an older adult’s life.

Knowing when changes signal worthwhile concern can pose a challenge. But don’t let your own denial or an older loved one’s dismissal of your concerns stand in the way of addressing these concerns.

Are any of these signs familiar?

  1. Concerned friends or neighbors have called you because they noticed worrisome changes. They may step in to provide help if they can. Examples: Dad locked himself out of house again when retrieving the mail and asked a neighbor for help. Aunt Lois has a new “friend” that her closest friends are worried about. Mom left a pan of soup unattended on the stove, which set off the smoke detector and sparked a kitchen fire that a neighbor put out with a fire extinguisher.
  2. Mail is piling up and unopened. Bills are unpaid and utilities are at risk of being shut off or have been shut off. Examples: A deeper look reveals that finances are in disarray, which is completely out of character for your dad who was an accountant. Since Uncle Fred died, Aunt Carol doesn’t know the first thing about managing household finances and her accounts have been reflagged at her bank out of concern as your cousin Chuck has been helping himself to large withdrawals from her account.
  3. The refrigerator has a strong odor. There is molding, rotten food in the kitchen. Examples: You just had lunch and then your mother asked, “When are we going to have lunch?” You went grocery shopping three days ago for your dad and on a recent visit you noticed that the meals have gone untouched and your dad complains of having nothing to eat.
  4. Medications are taken incorrectly. Your loved one is confused about his or her doctor’s advice. Examples: There is an abundance of pill bottles all over your friend Sally’s kitchen counter and piles of pills in a dish, which she grabs and ingests in handfuls without regard to doctor’s instructions. Your mom has been on a new medication, one of many prescriptions, and her mood has gotten dramatically worse, as has her memory.
  5. Hygiene concerns: Your loved one wears soiled clothing, bathes infrequently, and does not attend to personal hygiene as they once did. Examples: Your best friend Nancy always took pride in her appearance but, more and more, you notice her wearing the same outfit, day in and day out, and there are stains on her clothing. When you visit your parents, you notice as you hug them that there is an unpleasant odor, as if they’ve not showered or changed clothes in weeks or months.
  6. Not able to drive safely. The car has new scratches or dents, maintenance has been ignored, and your older loved one can’t explain why. Examples: Your dad insists on picking you up from the airport on your recent visit and you don’t know if you’ll ever recover from the terrifying ride after he drove through red lights, crossed the center line, and appeared to have lost his way home. Or you listen in disbelief as your in-laws chuckle as they share the story of how dad’s memory isn’t good but his eyesight is sharp, and mom’s eyesight is bad, but her memory is great, so she navigates while he drives.
  7. “Mom is fine,” your dad says. Mom agrees, though your gut tells you otherwise. They have learned to compensate for one another. Examples: Mom keeps asking you the same question—over and over again. Or Dad keeps telling the same story—over and over again. Your always-impeccably dressed Aunt Lucy is wearing two different shoes, on the wrong feet, and a polka-dotted top with flower-patterned pants, when you come to pick her up for your evening at the theater.

These are common signs that something has changed, and require attention. If you noticed changes in behavior, memory, or other issues, it may be time to address your concerns. Safety, housing, health, nutrition, quality of life, transportation, medical concerns, finances, and family dynamics can be complex, your older loved ones reluctant to discuss these issues, and you may find it difficult to broach the subject.

Not sure what to do next?

Every family is different, but there are supports and strategies available to help you focus on creating a plan to move forward, explore what matters most to your loved one, and help get them the help they need, while respecting their autonomy, independence, and dignity.

Here are some organizations in our area that are ready to offer help, resources, and support:


Wendy Nathan, BSc, CMCContributor Wendy Nathan, BSc, CMC is a Certified Care Manager with Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care practice with offices in Seattle and Bellevue. Wendy also facilitates a support group for the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter.

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