Before Linda Barlaam’s mom had a stroke in 2014, there were some definite signs that she shouldn’t live in her two-bedroom condo anymore. For example, her focus was so off that the family was concerned about whether she should drive even short distances.
“In addition, her memory was starting to not be as sharp and we were concerned that she was forgetting to take her medications,” says Barlaam, a professional organizer in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Also, she was fearful that she wouldn’t turn the oven on or off properly so she would only use the stovetop and microwave. My brother, sister and I were always worried that was eating enough nutritious foods.”
Now that her mom, now 84, has moved into assisted living, those worries have been allayed.
“We no longer have to worry about her driving, her meals and her medications,” she says. “There’s a nursing staff there to make sure she takes her correct medications daily and there’s a book club, card games, discussions on world events, and local trips — so lots of social situations for older adults like my mom.”
If you’ve been noticing subtle — or overt — changes in your parent as he or she gets older and you’re growing increasingly concerned because your parent is still living independently, read on. Here are the 10 signs your parent shouldn’t live alone anymore.
1. Your parent wanders.
If you have an aging parent who is wandering and getting lost in familiar places, this is a red flag that this parent should not be left alone, says Susann Varano, MD, a resident care specialist at Maplewood Senior Living in New Haven, Connecticut. “I would first rule out an infection such as urinary tract infection that can create a confused state,” she says. “If, however, this person does not have an infection, but does have Alzheimer’s or other Progressive Dementia disorders, and they continue to wander, they may end up lost in an unsafe environment. This means it might be time to move them to somewhere where they will have support.”
2. Your parent has physical limitations.
If you’re noticing that your parent is showing a loss of strength, weight loss, weakness, or a loss of stamina, it could be a sign that they may not be safe alone in their home. “If you are also noticing difficulty balancing and more bruising, it could be a sign they are at risk for falls,” says Lakelyn Hogan, a gerontologist and caregiver advocate for Home Instead Senior Care, in Omaha, Nebraska. “These issues could also be the result of improper nutrition and hydration. The family will want to dive deeper into the issue to find the root cause and ensure their loved one has the support they need at home to remain there safely.”
3. Your parent can’t manage the house.
Next time you visit your parent at home, take a close look at the state of things, suggests Donald Mack, MD, a family medicine physician who specializes in treating geriatric patients at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. “Notice if he or she is no longer able to care for him or herself, including bathing and dressing, cooking meals, doing laundry or cleaning the house,” he says. “Then notice if food is spoiling from not being used in time, if the mail is piling up, if the garbage isn’t being taken out.”
4. Your parent seems different.
It may be hard to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong with your mom or dad, especially if they’re showing subtle changes. “You want to pay close attention if you see signs they are declining physically, mentally or emotionally,” Dr. Mack says. “Are they losing weight? Are they lonely? Are they confused or forgetful? Do they need help using the bathroom? Are they missing doctor appointments? These are all critical questions to think about when your parent lives alone.”
5. Your parent isn’t communicating about it.
Most of the time, your parent will not come out and tell you there is a problem, suggests Rani Snyder, an older adult caregiving/living expert and program director at the John A. Hartford Foundation in New York City. “They may not realize it or they may be worried about making changes or causing a burden for their family. Communication is key to understanding what they are experiencing. Similarly, social isolation often accompanies limitations in functional ability and is equally damaging to your parents’ health.”
6. Your parent can’t drive.
“There are signs that might indicate it’s time to talk to your parents about different living arrangements," says Snyder. "You may visit your father and find his refrigerator is nearly empty, his bills are unpaid, and his house is in disarray. Or get a call from your mother’s neighbor saying that she has wandered into the street, unable to find her way back home. These signs might mean that your parent has challenges like poor eyesight or even cognitive impairment, making it difficult or dangerous to live at home alone."
7. Your parent can’t pay bills.
An early warning sign is when your parent has trouble with finances, including forgetting to pay bills or tax payments or making poor financial decisions, says Catherine Hodder, an estate planning attorney and author of Estate Planning for the Sandwich Generation: How to Help Your Parents and Protect Your Kids (14.99, Amazon.com). “Being alert to missed payments or mismanagement can give you some insight into your parent’s condition,” she says. “It can indicate problems with cognitive abilities. Those may show up prior to signs of physical decline.” To monitor your parents' bank accounts, have them name you as a power of attorney. “You could also be added on their accounts so you can get duplicate statements,” she says. “However, there are drawbacks to this, as you may be liable as a signer on the accounts. Some banks and financial institutions have forms that your parent can sign to give you authorization on the account, but you have to know all the banks they use.”
8. Your parent smells.
This is one of the tougher scenarios for adult children to handle but, truth is, an older adult’s change in appearance or hygiene can be a sign that they may need more assistance, Hogan says. “Some things to look for include neglected personal hygiene resulting in wearing dirty clothes, body odor, bad breath, neglected nails and teeth, and sores on the skin. A change in appearance could be an indicator that something else is going on, such as the individual’s struggles with cognitive issues, physical limitations, or incontinence.”
9. Your parent may be going through changes.
When caring for your aging parents, it’s incredibly important to work through things step by step, suggests Dr. Varano. “If you’re worried that your mom or dad shouldn’t live alone because the home is messy, try to find out why your parent isn’t cleaning the house,” she says. “Is it a physical barrier (spinal stenosis, arthritis, macular degeneration, shortness of breath) and are they not taking their medication, or is it an underlying depression that was never screened for and therefore not diagnosed nor treated? Before simply moving them, find out the cause.”
10. Your doctor agrees.
If a parent’s behaviors have changed, they should always be evaluated medically first, Varano says. “If a physician states that mom or dad has moderate Alzheimer’s dementia and is missing bill payments, leaving the stove on, eating spoiled food, etc. then the parent would need extra care to ensure her or his safety,” she says.
This post was written by Lambeth Hochwald.