EVERY YEAR AT THIS time, Paula Falk receives an influx of calls from adult children concerned about the decline of their elderly parents. “They visited at the holidays and saw the reality of their parents’ situation, which is much different than what Mom or Dad had been describing on the phone,” says Falk, director of caregiving services at the Friendship Centers in Sarasota, Florida. It’s a nonprofit comprehensive senior center that caters to one of the country’s largest retirement populations.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to regions rich with retirees. America is getting older, with adults 65 or older comprising about 15 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, according to the Pew Research Center.
But older adults typically prize their independence and may not let on that they need help. “Sometimes you’re shocked when you visit,” says Dr. Michael Perskin, a geriatrician at NYU Langone Health. “You walk into a parent’s house and the bathrooms are dirty or there’s no food in the refrigerator. That represents a change.”
It’s natural for adults to experience age-related health changes. Eyesight and hearing decline, muscles lose mass, bones lose density, joints become stiff with arthritis and cognitive processing speed slows.
Small health changes may not seem like they would affect a person’s ability to live on his or her own. But the cumulative total can have a major impact.
Take, for example, an older adult with muscle weakness, hand arthritis and poor vision. Individually, each condition is manageable. But when combined, the conditions may make it hard to go shopping, carry groceries, cook, dress or clean a house.
Or consider an older adult with a weak grip and knee pain. Neither condition is life-threatening. But together, they may make it hard for an older adult to hold onto a steering wheel and press a gas pedal. Suddenly, it’s difficult to drive.
Sometimes it takes just one major health issue to put an older adult’s independence in jeopardy. Obviously, someone with dementia won’t be able to manage self-care. But the same can be true for people with many other chronic health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (a lung condition often called COPD), age-related macular degeneration (which causes central vision loss) or severe depression.
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