Concerned about your aging parents' health? Use this guide to gauge how your aging parents are doing — and what to do if they need help.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

As your parents get older, how can you be sure they're taking care of themselves and staying healthy?

When you visit your parents, consider the following questions:

Pay attention to your parents' appearance. Failure to keep up with daily routines — such as bathing and tooth brushing — could indicate dementia, depression or physical impairments.

Also pay attention to your parents' home. Are the lights working? Is the heat on? Is the yard overgrown? Any changes in the way your parents do things around the house could provide clues to their health. For example, scorched pots could mean your parents are forgetting about food cooking on the stove. Neglected housework could be a sign of depression, dementia or other concerns.

Everyone forgets things from time to time. Modest memory problems are a fairly common part of aging, and sometimes medication side effects or underlying conditions contribute to memory loss.

There's a difference, though, between normal changes in memory and the type of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Are your parents' memory changes limited to misplaced glasses or an occasionally forgotten appointment? Or are the changes more concerning, such as forgetting common words when speaking, getting lost in familiar neighborhoods or being unable to follow directions?

Take a look around your parents' home, keeping an eye out for any red flags. Do your parents have difficulty navigating a narrow stairway? Has either parent fallen recently? Are they able to read directions on medication containers? When asked, do your parents say they feel safe at home?

Driving can be challenging for older adults. If your parents become confused while driving or you're concerned about their ability to drive safely, it might be time to stop driving.

Losing weight without trying could be a sign that something's wrong. Weight loss could be related to many factors, including:

  • Difficulty cooking. Your parents could be having difficulty finding the energy to cook, grasping the tools necessary to cook, or reading labels or directions on food products.
  • Loss of taste or smell. Your parents might not be interested in eating if food doesn't taste or smell as good as it used to.
  • Underlying conditions. Sometimes weight loss indicates a serious underlying condition, such as malnutrition, dementia, depression or cancer.

Note your parents' moods and ask how they're feeling. A drastically different mood or outlook could be a sign of depression or other health concerns.

Also talk to your parents about their activities. Are they connecting with friends? Have they maintained interest in hobbies and other daily activities? Are they involved in organizations or clubs? If a parent gives up on being with others, it could be a sign of a problem.

Pay attention to how your parents are walking. Are they reluctant or unable to walk usual distances? Have they fallen recently? Is knee or hip arthritis making it difficult to get around the house? Would either parent benefit from a cane or walker?

Issues such as muscle weakness and joint pain can make it difficult to move around as well. If your parents are unsteady on their feet, they might be at risk of falling — a major cause of disability among older adults.

There are many steps you can take to ensure your parents' health and well-being, even if you don't live nearby. For example:

  • Share your concerns with your parents. Talk to your parents. Your concern might motivate your parents to see a doctor or make other changes. Consider including other people who care about your parents in the conversation, such as other loved ones, close friends or clergy.
  • Encourage regular medical checkups. If you're worried about a parent's weight loss, depressed mood, memory loss or other signs and symptoms, encourage your parent to schedule a doctor's visit. You might offer to schedule the visit or to accompany your parent to the doctor — or to find someone else to attend the visit. Ask about follow-up visits as well.
  • Address safety issues. Point out any potential safety issues to your parents — then make a plan to address the problems. For example, your parents might benefit from using assistive devices to help them reach items on high shelves. A higher toilet seat or handrails in the bathroom might help prevent falls. If your parents are no longer able to drive safely, suggest other transportation options — such as taking the bus, using a van service or hiring a driver.
  • Consider home care services. If your parents are having trouble taking care of themselves, you could hire someone to clean the house and run errands. A home health care aide could help your parents with daily activities, such as bathing. You might also consider Meals on Wheels or other community services. If remaining at home is too challenging, you might suggest moving to an assisted living facility.
  • Contact the doctor for guidance. If your parents dismiss your concerns, consider contacting the doctor directly. Your insights can help the doctor understand what to look for during upcoming visits. Keep in mind that the doctor might need to verify that he or she has permission to speak with you about your parents' care, which might include a signed form or waiver from your parents.
  • Seek help from local agencies. Your local agency on aging — which you can find using the Eldercare Locator, a public service of the Administration on Aging — can connect you with services in your parents' area. For example, the county in which your parents live might have social workers who can evaluate your parents' needs and connect them with services, such as home care workers.

Sometimes parents won't admit they need help, and others don't realize they need help. That's where you come in. Make sure your parents understand the problem and your proposed solution. Remind your parents that you care about them and that you want to help promote their health and well-being, both today and in the years to come.

Jan. 10, 2015