It can be difficult to tell the difference between normal, age-related decline and something more serious. According to Alan Gruber, M.D., a psychiatrist with a private practice in Massachusetts, there are several ways a loved one can tell if an elderly relative is losing his or her independence. Here are some things to look for:
1. Missed appointments: Failing to meet a friend or doctor without cancelling in advance may be a sign of declining health.
2. Maintaining hygiene: Pay attention to body odor, grooming, incontinence and dressing according to the season.
3. Easily disoriented: A failure to recognize familiar spaces, wandering, or getting lost in well-known areas are early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.
4. Loss of memory: Forgetting something at the store is a sign of “benign” memory loss; forgetting something at the store and not remembering that you did when someone reminds you of it is “malignant,” or pathological memory impairment and bears a closer look.
5. Word problems: Not being able to recall a common word for something, or repeating oneself can be a symptom of dementia or mental illness.
6. Random check-writing: Sending money to previously unknown “charities” or other out-of-the-blue expenditures can signal an inability to exercise appropriate judgment.
7. Physical aggression: A senior who attacks others because they are believed to pose a threat shows an inability to control feelings of distress.
8. Making inaccurate assertions: Signs of dementia may include “psychotic ideation,” in which clearly untrue statements are made, such as “They’re talking about me on T.V.,” or “I saw three men in my bedroom last night.”
9. Unopened mail: Watch for unpaid bills or other neglected household duties.
10. Spoiled food: Food left unrefrigerated or kept around long after it’s “sell by” date can indicate mental instability.
11. Poor Nutrition: Pay attention to weight loss, loss of appetite or unwillingness to cook for themselves.
12. Scorched pans: These may indicate the inability to cook safely, and could pose a bigger fire hazard.
13. Mystery bruises: Unexplained injuries are likely to be signs of falling.
14. Car damage: Look for dents and scrapes that cannot be explained or recalled. Be sure to drive with your family member to determine whether or not he or she is safe behind the wheel.
Alan R. Gruber, DSW, PhD, MD, is a board certified medical psychologist and neuropsychologist who specializes in the diagnosis and management of behavior disorders in geriatric and medically complicated patients.