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When Should You Step In to Help Your Parents?

They may brush off your offers, so suss out their true needs

By Eileen Beal and Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Editor’s note: This is the first in the Next Avenue “When Should You…” series on aging milestones for parents or loved ones. With our partners at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, we will address common caregiving concerns.
A parent may ask for the occasional favor, but most won’t ask for help around the house or with their daily activities, even when they need it, says Alberta Chokshi, a social worker and director of quality improvement for Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.
Chokshi, who has been working with families for 40 years, says that instead of seeking help, it’s typical for elderly parents to adapt and adjust their activities and routines.
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They do household chores more slowly (or not at all). They may use adaptive devices, such as a cane or a reacher or a magnifying glass. Perhaps they’ve lined up someone to pick them up for errands and appointments. And — often just to please their children — they will wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
What Our Parents Don't Admit

But they usually aren’t admitting — especially to their adult children — that they tend to drop heavy pots, trip on the basement steps, are confused about when to take their medications or back into things with the car.

They don’t think it’s any of their kids’ business. Or, they are in denial about what’s going on. 
(MORE: What It Takes to Age in Place)
Try To See The Big Picture
Denial isn’t all on the parents’ side. Adult children are often deep in it, too.

They don’t want to admit that a parent is declining and needs help. They may resist accepting that familial roles are starting to reverse and that they need to step in, either helping a parent themselves or lining up support.
If you’re guilty of denial, it’s time for you to take a hard look around for the telltale signs that things aren’t going well for a parent or loved one.
Don’t just look for safety and health troubles, Chokshi advises. Look for things that could point to problems with how a parent is functioning on a daily basis, and also check on whether companionship and socialization needs are being met. Try to check out the whole physical, emotional and psychological picture.
Also, look for indicators that your parent’s spiritual needs are being met. Many older adults have had very strong and active affiliations with their religious organizations and it’s important for them to keep those up.
(MORE: The Tipping Points That Turn Us Into Caregivers)
What To Look For
The following are incidents/situations/observations to be on the lookout for and, where appropriate, question a parent about:

  • Falls, accidents and bruises
  • Difficulty getting up from a seated position or with walking, balance and mobility
  • A decline in housekeeping and house maintenance (dishes piled in the sink, dirty floors, broken railings, drippy faucets, dirty walls, etc.)
  • A noticeable decline in grooming, dress and personal care
  • Unexplained weight loss (or gain)
  • Inability to recognize or react to danger
  • A falloff in socializing, getting out or visiting (often due to a shrinking social network)
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Forgetting to take medications — or taking more than the prescribed dosage 
  • Uncertainty and confusion when performing once-familiar tasks

Keep in mind that some problems could be due to an illness or be related to medications being taken (or not taken). So, sometimes a visit to the doctor is a good first step in assessing needs.

Another scenario to be aware of when self-care and other habits change — it could indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. If a parent is diagnosed with dementia, adult children need to be more watchful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to step in with help right at that moment.
Navigating the maze of eldercare options can be challenging.
The next part in this series will answer the question:  When should you get an assessment for your aging loved one?

Eileen Beal Read More
Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging
By Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

is an over 110-year old Cleveland-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to support caregivers and empower all people to age well through research, consumer-responsive services and client advocacy. Visit us at

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