Updated: Dec 3, 2020
These are certainly interesting times…no one saw 2020 the way is turning out to be. You probably didn’t predict much of what you’ve experienced this year, and especially that your senior parents would be living with you during a pandemic! Yet, here we are!
I’m sure there are many special times that have come from having your parents with you—day and night—for the past few weeks or months! But, it’s certainly different than seeing your parents at holidays, maybe 3 or 4 times a year; you may have even had some startling observations about your parents’ behaviors and habits.
But having your parents live with you during the COVID-19 quarantine period is a rare opportunity to evaluate your parents’ health, which may make you ask: “What’s normal? What’s an expected part of aging and what should alarm me?” I’d like to spend a little bit of time today examining conditions that would be considered a “normal” part of the aging process, and what might be something that would warrant a call or visit to your parents’ doctor.
What’s Natural and What’s Not
There are many different or new behaviors you might observe in your parents, and it would be difficult to cover all of them in one, or even a few, blogs. Here are some of the most common changes you might be noticing. I’ll share what’s considered “normal” (or a natural part of the aging process), and what might raise an alert to seek the advice of your parents’ PCP. While it can be challenging to care for a loved one whose habits and behaviors have changed from what you’re used to, patience—along with the appropriate medical care and attention—often reaps rewards.
And please remember that, while I am around amazing seniors in my work at Aegis Living, I am not a physician. Please do not use what follows as a diagnostic tool. Always seek advice from a medical professional when you see something that is concerning to you.
Energy, Stamina, and Physical Abilities
Age-related changes in stamina, strength, and ability will vary based on your parents’ current (and past) health choices (diet, exercise, lifestyle), medical history, and genetics. Natural changes in cells may slow them down or alter their capacity. With age, we lose muscle tissue and our muscles become more rigid and less toned. While there are ways to improve strength and flexibility, we can’t completely reverse this natural course of aging.
Frequently, though, we tend to write conditions off to, “I’m just getting older.” Marie Bernard, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging and a geriatrician, shared, “I’ve had many a patient come in and complain about pain in their knee. They’ve said, ‘It’s just my age.’ The reality of the matter is both knees are the same age. Why is one knee painful and the other is not?” If your parent has a sudden change or if she feels pain, that is a red flag that should be checked out.
This one hits close to home, as my mother had Alzheimer’s (ALZ). It’s important to know that not all forgetfulness is a sign of something as serious as ALZ or dementia. Mom forgetting where she put her keys or Dad forgetting the name of that action movie star is common when you get older. So are occasionally having trouble finding the right word or forgetting why you walked into a room. As one ages, it becomes more difficult to think quickly and to multitask. This is normal. While changes to our brains are inevitable, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease go far beyond normal memory loss. With dementia, your parent may find it difficult to remember conversations they just had, or they might not be able to remember the names of family members. Beyond problems remembering, other symptoms might include problems with communication, reasoning, concentration, and impaired visual perception. Loss that affects daily functioning should be evaluated.
While it’s important to be alerted to warning signs, don’t over-react every time Dad forgets something. If more signs of dementia become apparent, see a primary care physician or geriatrician to rule out other causes that might be easily treatable.
Longer Response Time
In addition to the normal decline in short-term memory, it’s also not unusual to see your parents take longer to respond—they learn more slowly and retain new information less effectively. Generally, information processing slows as we grow older, and seniors have more trouble multitasking.
Many seniors make a conscious effort to maintain mental alertness by reading, learning new skills, taking classes, and/or maintaining social contacts with people from a variety of age groups. These are all great ways to keep your brain sharp.
It’s also important to acknowledge what our parents are able to do now versus what they have been able to do in the past. That said, don’t sell Dad short. Give him the time and opportunity to stretch and grow. Just be observant and adaptable.
Some loss in hearing is normal as we age. In fact, roughly 30% of those over the age of 60 have some hearing loss. This may be due to the loss of sensory receptors in the inner ear. At first, some sounds may seem muffled, and high-pitched voices may be harder to understand. Changes in tone and speech may also be harder to distinguish.
You may find that, at times, you have to repeat things and Mom may have “Jeopardy” on a little louder than you’d like. This is not out of the norm.
On the other hand, pain, drainage from the ear, or a rapid loss of hearing could be a sign of an infection or a condition that’s a bit more serious. Hearing in one ear being noticeably worse than the other is also something that is not normal.
Robert Dobie, MD, professor of otolaryngology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, advises that, “If your parents aren’t hearing quite as well as they did a few years ago, that’s the aging process. If they don’t hear as well this week as they did last week, that’s not the aging process, and should prompt a call to the doctor.”
Kenneth Minaker, MD, chief of geriatric medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School says, “We shouldn’t think of aging as a failure of our bodily systems…Aging is a life-saving process. It is a process of lifelong adaptation to prevent us from developing cancers that would kill us.”
The normal changes that come with aging may be a bit unsettling to see in your parents, but they’re nothing to worry about. It’s when you start to observe extremes that you may want to see the advice of their doctor. To learn more about ways you can stay healthy, check out my latest bestseller, 30 Summers More. Not only will you find tips that will help your senior parents, there are also things in there that will help you on your path to longevity. It’s never too early (or too late) to start living your best life.
Come back next time as I will share tips on ways to “mom- and dad-proof” your house. Until then, Wellness Warriors, Live Well, Live Long!