Knowing when to ask for help can be surprisingly tough for family caregivers. That’s because all of us like to see ourselves as capable, and most of us adapt pretty quickly to less-than-ideal situations so we think we’re doing fine even when we’re not.
Fortunately, there are some clear signs that it’s time to get help for your folks and for yourself. Some are “yellow flags” that your parents may need a checkup or extra help from time to time. Some are hard indicators that your folks need full-time care. Others are signs that you need a helping hand to maintain your own health:
When Your Parents May Need Help
If you’re wondering if your folks are doing okay at home, watch for changes in their behavior, household and social life. These changes don’t have to dramatic. Small deviations from the way your parents have always done things are the first flags letting you know they may need help. Here are some examples.
1. Changes in your parent’s housekeeping.
If your parent used to keep a neat home, but now you notice layers of dust, grubby floors or unwashed laundry piling up, something has changed. Mobility issues can cause anyone to slack off their chores. So can cognitive decline and depression. Vision changes can cause older adults to miss the expiration dates on food packages or new infestations of small pests like ants and pantry moths.
Possible solutions: You parent may need a checkup, extra help from family caregivers, mobility aids, new glasses, weekly visits from a house cleaner or other help.
2. Changes in your Dad’s or Mom’s eating habits.
Most of us would rather not cook an elaborate dinner for one, but sometimes making even a simple healthy meal can be a challenge. If your parents are losing weight or leaving their food uneaten, try to find out why. Again, depression, mobility issues or vision changes can cause your parents to go for what’s easy instead of what’s healthy — or forget to eat altogether. Illnesses and medications can affect appetite, too, so try to get your folks to the doctor if you notice they’re not eating well.
Possible solutions: Your parents may need a grocery or prepared meal delivery, medical checkup or weekly homemaking help to plan menus, prepare or shop for meals. If your parents have a limited income and no one nearby to help with meals, contact the local Area Agency on Aging and Meals on Wheels to find out what services are available.
3. Changes in your parents’ pets.
Pets can be a good indicator of how your folks are doing. If Fido’s coat and nails are now going ungroomed or the litterbox is consistently overdue for a cleanout, mobility or mood may be the cause.
Possible solutions: Help your parents keep track of their pet’s vet needs through an app like PetDesk, hire a pet-sitter to help with cleanup and walks, or arrange for regular doggie daycare for grooming and playtime.
4. Changes in your parents’ social lives.
One of the hardest things about aging in place is maintaining a network of friends as everyone grows older. If your parents have gone from weekly church attendance and lunches with friends to sitting at home, the cause could be physical, emotional, cognitive, trouble driving—or a dwindling social network.
Possible solutions: Your folks may need new social opportunities. Many cities have senior centers where older adults go to enjoy movies, board games, fitness classes, and civic and political discussions. And every state has free or discounted college course options for older adults. There are also companies like ours, that offer driving services with companionship. For example, you can hire one of our drivers to take your mother to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the day, or even just a stroll around the mall.
5. Changes in your parents’ driving habits.
Driving is a lifeline for most suburban and rural residents, and giving it up can be traumatic unless you help them make alternate transportation plans. If they’ve gotten into more that one accident recently, maybe it’s time to reevaluate their abilities to drive.
Possible solutions: There are city provided transportation services, not just the L or bus, but city provided door to door transportation options. Companions for Seniors also offers a driving solution as well. Ours comes with a companion as well, to make sure your loved one is safe and social wherever they go.
6. Unopened mail.
Stacks of unopened mail are a bigger warning than they might seem. Often, unopened mail means unpaid bills, which can mean a financial mess that needs sorting out. If your parents have friends and relatives who still practice the fine art of letter writing, unopened personal mail can be a sign of cognitive problems or depression.
Possible solutions: Help your folks go paperless and automate their bill payments, offer to help them sort out any problems with late payments and see if they need help reading letters or writing replies.
When Your Parent Definitely Needs Help
If the changes above are yellow flags that your folks might need a hand, these next things are red flags that indicate your folks need help right away to keep them and the people around them safe.
When these situations arise it’s time to talk to your parents, their caregivers and doctor to decide if the solution is more extensive help at home or a move to a senior community:
1. Aggressive or violent behavior.
This type of behavior toward caregivers, family members, friends or neighbors is a sign that the caregiving situation needs to change, for everyone’s safety.
Falls are also a danger sign, especially if they’re happening often, if you suspect your parent is concealing them from you, or if he or she lives alone or in a house with stairs or on a steep lot.
If your folks are accidentally starting cooking or electrical fires, it’s time for round-the-clock supervision to prevent a tragedy.
4. Forgetting medication often or taking it incorrectly.
Forgetting medication or not taking medication correctly can lead to falls, hospitalizations or overdoses.
Seniors who wander need round-the-clock supervision to stay safe.
These scenarios can indicate issues like advancing dementia, medication problems or undiagnosed infections (UTIs are notorious for sparking odd behavior in older adults), which is why it’s important to get your folks to their doctor and have a conversation about what to do next.
When You’re Experiencing Caregiver Burnout
Sometimes it may feel like your folks are fine, it’s just that you can’t keep up with everything they need. It can be tempting to try to take on all the caregiving responsibilities yourself or to assume that you can’t delegate any of them, but that’s not always the most effective approach.
These are signs that it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to bring in help from family members, friends or paid helpers:
1. Caregiver illness.
Even the most capable caregivers can catch the flu or sprain an ankle. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a backup caregiver you can call on short notice. Line up a couple of other family members, good friends or a home health agency ahead of time so you won’t have to worry about your folks when you need a few days to recuperate.
2. Lack of certain skills.
At some point, you may need to know how to change the dressing on a wound, check for signs of infection, give insulin injections or take blood pressure accurately. Ask your parent’s doctor, nurse or a hired home health aide to show you what you need to know. If you can, ask them to watch you practice so you’ll have more confidence that you’re doing it right.
3. Not enough time.
Try as you might, you really can’t be two (or more) places at the same time and most of us could use a couple extra hours in each day. If you feel like you’re having to choose between caring for your children or parents, it’s time get others to pitch in by cooking meals, running errands or tackling other caregiving chores.
Remember, caregiver burnout is a serious health condition that happens when caregivers don’t have enough support, training or time for self-care. Caregiver burnout can lead to anxiety, depression and poor health, and in some cases, to self-harm. Signs that you have burnout and need help right away include:
- Anger or irritability
- Avoiding family and friends
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Loss of interest in things you used to like to do
- More frequent illnesses
- Problems remembering things and concentrating
- Sleep problems and exhaustion
- The desire to hurt yourself or your parent
- Use of alcohol, illicit drugs or pills
If you ever think you’re at risk of acting out — toward yourself or your parent — get help right away, either by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 to talk to a counselor, calling 911 to ask for a mental health officer, or calling a friend to take you to the nearest emergency room.
If you feel the other symptoms of caregiver burnout, it’s time to ask for more help from your family and friends. It’s also time to make an appointment with your doctor to talk about your stress level, schedule and what you can do to protect your health.
Caregiver burnout symptoms are also your cue to take a look at your diet, exercise and stress-management habits.
Are you able to make time to eat healthy meals, get some exercise each day and have at least a few minutes to yourself? If not, it may be time to get in-home respite care or to look into adult day programs to give your parents good care while you take care of yourself.
It’s not always easy to know when to ask for help for yourself and your parents, but in general, it’s wise to err on the side of caution. Explore the care programs in your area and remember that your friends and family may be happy to help if you’ll let them know what you need.