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Health Information Offering Assistance to an Aging Loved One

When a loved one ages

Your husband of 40 years is becoming increasingly forgetful. An elderly aunt who was always impeccably groomed starts to appear unkempt. Your outgoing 75-year-old mother has abandoned all of her social activities because she says she just doesn’t enjoy them anymore.

Everyone changes, in ways both obvious and subtle, as they grow older. But sometimes changes occur that are not considered normal aspects of aging. They may, in fact, be signs that an older adult needs physical and/or emotional assistance — the kind of personalized, multidisciplinary care found at Rush University Medical Center.

Reasons for concern

According to Maria Hansberry, MD, a geriatrician at Rush, you should look for signs of decline in a person’s ability to take care of him- or herself and live well, such as:

  • Deterioration in personal hygiene. Lack of cleanliness or an unruly appearance can be due to poor vision, physical impairment, cognitive decline or depression.
  • Unexplained weight loss. Older adults, especially those living on fixed incomes, may be cost conscious and cut back on food. Or they may not be able to shop or cook for themselves.
  • An abnormally messy home. Is the mail stacking up? Are there dirty dishes piled in the sink? It’s important to visit older adults at home to help ensure that everything in the home is clean and functioning.
  • Memory loss. While memory loss may be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, it can also be caused by medications, exhaustion and/or depression.
  • Social isolation. This may be as simple as not being able to drive or not having the energy to engage in activities. But it may also be a sign of depression, which is far more serious.
  • Depression. Although depression is common among older adults, it’s not a normal part of aging and is treatable.

Lend an ear, then a hand

If you notice an older relative or friend experiencing these types of problems, reach out to him or her. “It may not be an easy conversation to have, so the tendency is to put it off,” says Robyn L. Golden, MA, LCSW, director of older adult programs at Rush. “But you don’t want to wait for a crisis to arise,” she says.

To help make the conversation easier, Golden offers the following recommendations:

  • Try to find a nonthreatening approach. A one-on-one conversation might be less intimidating than a group intervention.
  • Don’t treat this as a one-time deal. Establish an ongoing dialogue in which you both feel comfortable raising issues now or in the future.
  • If your relative or friend already has confidants, ask them to take part in the conversation, especially if you live far away.
  • Mention that you’re due for your annual physical, and suggest you both schedule an appointment and visit the doctor together to alleviate some of the anxiety. If your relative or friend doesn’t have a primary care physician, offer to help find an internist or geriatrician to coordinate his or her care.
  • Emphasize getting help now in order to prevent more serious problems down the road.
  • Most important, before you sit down to talk, educate yourself about available area resources — such as the Anne Byron Waud Resource Center at Rush. For more information on the Waud Center, turn to the sidebar on page 5.
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