What happens when age finally catches up to your elderly parents?
It’s a situation that many Baby Boomers and younger New Jerseyans may have to deal with in the not-too-distant future.
You’ve got an elderly mother or father, maybe an aunt or uncle, and everything seems to be going along smoothly in their life. But suddenly you notice something is off: There’s a problem with an everyday activity or event.
Many New Jerseyans aren’t sure how to handle this kind of situation. Where to begin in order to determine the extent of the problem, what’s causing it, and what should happen next?
Dr. Jessica Israel, the corporate chair of geriatrics and palliative medicine for Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health, said if you notice a change in a loved one’s ability to handle their daily living activities, that’s an indication of some kind of underlying problem.
“An example is if your mother doesn’t balance her checkbook correctly or she forgets to make herself dinner, she’ll skip a meal with some frequency," Israel said.
More than 1.3 million residents of New Jersey are at least 65 years old — that's almost 15 percent of the population. A half million are at least 75 and nearly 200,000 are over 85, according to the most recent Census estimates.
Not everyone who is elderly suffers from some type of dementia.
“With increasing age, that risk will go up but it is not something that everyone gets. It’s not a normal change in aging," Israel said.
When a person reaches their 80s or 90s, “that person may think slower but still get to the right end point. That's normal," she said. "But not being able to focus on what that problem is, or retain that new information and incorporate that into what you’re looking for as an end result is not.”
Mary Catherine Lundquist, the program director of the Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care COPSA Institute for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders, said one thing to check is your elderly mom or dad’s weight.
“If it seems like they’re losing weight it might an indication that maybe they’re having a harder time preparing food for themselves. If somebody starts having memory problems, they might have a hard time following a recipe.”
She suggested during a visit, check their refrigerator to see if there is still ample food inside and check whether it’s gone bad.
Lundquist said if the elderly relative complains about a problem with the phone or electricity, “maybe there’s something wrong with their bill paying, maybe they’re missing some bills, so looking to see anything that’s kind of out of the ordinary."
Israel said many problems, like forgetting where your keys are or not remembering the name of someone you haven’t seen in a long time or missing an appointment, don’t necessary mean there’s something seriously wrong.
“The things that raise red flags for me are forgetting the name of your daughter, asking the same question, telling the same story.”
Lundquist said that with a little assistance, an elderly person can remain independent. But to determine this requires “being with them and observing them and seeing what they’re having a hard time with.”
“Sometimes if a person gets confused with their medication, they might double up on a medication, they might miss a dose, and that can impact their ability to navigate things on a day to day basis," Lundquist said.
She recommends contacting the relative’s primary care physician as a starting point.
“Ask your primary care doctor to do blood work and also to screen your parent, do a basic screening for some memory issues. If they feel that there are issues, there are clinics where you can go, a geriatric assessment center, and be seen by specialists, by a geriatric psychiatrist, by a neurologist, by social workers and by nurses.”
Lundquist said another resource for getting help and referrals is the Care 2 Caregivers hotline, 1-800-424-2494.
In our continuing series tomorrow: Identifying the best kind of care for your relative, the options you’ll need to consider.