5 Ways to Keep Your Elderly Parent Safe

Nearly 66 million people care for someone in their golden years.

ByABC News
January 27, 2014, 5:49 PM
You can help keep your parents safe.
You can help keep your parents safe.
Getty Images

Jan. 28, 2014— -- intro: You visit your elderly mom one day and open the fridge to find shelves full of rotting food. It's so out of character for your mom, you wonder what's going on.

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"That's a pretty common scenario for the children of aging parents," said Richard Nix, executive vice president of AgingCare.com, an online support and information website. "With people living longer, their quality of life sometimes goes down and they can't care for themselves the way they used to."

The site gets about 8,000 questions a month on its caregiver's support forum, Nix said. Most of them are from adult children worried about what to do for their elderly parents. Many of them feel they are alone, but this is far from the truth. The National Caregivers Association estimates that nearly 66 million people care for someone in their golden years in at least some capacity.

Nix offered his advice on the five most common problems caregivers of seniors ask about, along with some advice on how to deal with them.

quicklist: 1title: One drink maximumcategory: Senior Safetytext: Once your dad turns 50, he may not be able to handle his wine like he used to.

The reason? Older drinkers metabolize alcohol more slowly than they did in their younger days so it stays in their system longer and they get drunk more easily. So, even with no changes to drinking habits, your mom probably won't hold her liquor quite as well as she used to.

While there is some evidence that a single drink per day may protect against coronary heart disease, heart attacks and Type 2 diabetes, the National Institutes of Health recommends that people over 65 shouldn't consume more than seven drinks in a week, and never more than three drinks on a given day.

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quicklist: 2category: Senior Safetytitle: Manage polypharmiaurl:text: Is there one doctor or many in charge of your parents' medical care? Who keeps track of what's in the medicine cabinet?

Mix multiple doctors and an already forgetful parent and this increases the chance of drug overlap or bad reactions. Over time, this can lead to personality changes, memory loss and other symptoms that can easily be mistaken for dementia, Nix said.

The problem of "polypharmia" is so common, last year a Dutch study found that one in five prescriptions written for elderly patients were inappropriate. And, the analysis showed, common drugs classed to treat allergies, depression and pain were among the most over-prescribed, and also the ones most likely to produce adverse reactions.

If you suspect your older parent is being over-medicated, tag along on their next doctor's visit, Nix advised. Bring a list of every medication including frequency and dosage. Insist your parent's primary care physician act as gatekeeper for all prescriptions and notify their office any time there is a change. If your parent falls ill, check to see if the symptoms are related to a medication, even if no new medication has been added.

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quicklist: 3category: Senior Safetytitle: Maintain balanceurl:text: Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death and hospital admissions among people age 65 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC statistics also show that more than 1.6 million seniors were treated in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries in 2012. That's one out of every three seniors.

Nix said that the most common causes of senior slip-and-falls are poor vision, diminished fitness, medication and hazardous obstacles like loose carpeting and poor lighting.

But many falls are preventable, Nix noted. And one of the best ways to help your parents stay upright is by slip-proofing their house.

Tack down area rugs, avoid clutter and keep the bathroom safe by placing rubber stickers in the bath and grab bars on the walls. He also recommends having your parent wear non-slip shoes or slippers, rather than walking around in stocking feet. If your older parent seems particularly accident prone, check in with a doctor to see if there are any underlying conditions that could be the cause.

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quicklist: 4category: Senior Safetytitle: Spot memory slideurl:text: A CDC study in 2012 found that nearly one in eight baby boomers reported increasing problems with memory in the past year. About a third of those with memory woes were so serious that they led to difficulty performing basic tasks like cleaning, cooking and work.

Nix said that problems with memory are exacerbated when a parent tries to hide memory lapses or refuses to see a specialist for an evaluation. The fear and stigma surrounding Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia is so profound, some elders would prefer not to face a diagnosis, he said.

While parents are famously stubborn about seeking medical care for aging issues like memory loss, Nix advises having them see a doctor as soon as you notice any decline in cognitive powers. Most forms of dementia cannot be reversed but some can be slowed down, he said.

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quicklist: 5category: Senior Safetytitle: Keep them movingurl:text: The average woman over the age of 70 spends most of her waking hours either lying down or sitting down, according to a Harvard School of Health study. One recent Nielsen report found that the average person over the age of 65 watches about 48 hours a week of television –- that's 7 hours a day.

Nix said encouraging them to exercise on a regular basis is the best way to help your parents stay healthy. For seniors, exercise helps keep the physical effects of aging at bay by strengthening muscles and bones, enhancing balance and easing arthritis pain, Nix said. And numerous studies show that increased blood flow to the brain that occurs as a result of physical activity can also keep a cognitively healthy senior's brain sharper and may also decrease symptoms of depression. These advantages have been shown to hold true, even for people in their 80s and 90s.

Not that you should sign up your dad for a marathon or ask him to climb a mountain. A daily walk, pedaling a stationary bike, or puttering around in the garden count towards the American Heart Association's recommendation of at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day.

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quicklist:category: Senior Safetytitle: Senior safety tweet chat today at 1 p.m. ETurl:text: More than a third of adults over the age of 65 take a tumble each year. Most falls don't cause serious injury, but they still leave a mark, often in the form of psychological fear. According to the CDC, approximately 25 percent of people 75 or over unnecessarily restrict their activities because they fear they will fall.

Join ABC Health for a tweet chat on senior safety today at 1 p.m. ET to learn more about how you can help your aging loved one safe. It will be moderated by Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News' chief health and medical editor, and top expert groups like agingcare.com and the CDC will be on hand to give you the facts of preventing senior slip and falls.

Everyone is welcome to join in and share their stories. Just follow these easy directions.

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