According to the U.S. 2010 Census, 28.3 percent of Americans older than age 65 lived alone. If you break that down just by ages 65 to 74, the number drops to 21.6 percent (because many spouses are still alive at this age) but increases to 32.2 percent for the 75-to-84 age group and 48.2 percent for seniors over age 85.
Surprised at those numbers? As Americans’ life expectancy has increased so has their preference toward independence, even if that means living alone. Many seniors do fine on their own, requiring and accepting some help from family and friends (not many 90-year-old grandmothers will change a car tire on their own, for example) but mostly living their lives as they did when their spouses were still alive.
However, some seniors struggle with living on their own, and the fact they do live alone compounds their problems. Loneliness, isolation, and depression are not good for your loved one’s health. Physical limitations are exacerbated when solitary seniors do not have access to quality caregiving. Yet, many families are unsure when to suggest a change, which is why knowing the signs an elderly parent needs help is so critical.
The Challenge of Living Alone
Seniors do live alone and thrive; there are no set criteria for when they should move from their homes or require more care. However, challenges do exist that must be accounted for. For starters, seniors are statistically more prone to falls and other accidents, and because they are on their own, help might not be available right away. Your parent might be widowed and might not be accustomed to handling the responsibilities that his or her spouse once handled. Loneliness, especially for widowed seniors, is a big issue, and your parent may not have the social calendar that he or she once did. Finally, your own time and resources must be considered—you may not be able to visit your parent or contribute financially as much as you want to.
Key Signs Your Parent Needs Help
Except maybe for symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, there’s no one sign that absolutely says your parent needs more help than you can offer. However, when you start seeing multiple signs, or when one of these following nine indicators becomes too overwhelming to deal with, you should start considering alternatives to your parent aging in place alone:
- Limited mobility: Unless a senior’s home has been modified to facilitate mobility and/or a caregiver is assisting your aging parent, limited mobility will decrease quality of life for elderly people living on their own.
- Hygiene is suffering: Of all the signs an elderly parent needs help, hygiene may be the most obvious. Seniors who are struggling to get into the bathtub will not bathe as much, and even using the toilet can be difficult for people with mobility issues. If you notice your parent is wearing dirty clothes, has bad breath, or looks unkempt, it could be a sign of not being able to meet basic hygienic needs or forgetting to do so.
- Weight loss: Seniors living on their own might not eat as much, either because they have difficulty preparing food or because of a medical- or depression-related loss of appetite. The result might be weight loss, which is detrimental to a senior’s health on multiple levels.
- Not getting out: Seniors may not leave the house as much for a variety of reasons: fear of driving, loneliness, medical conditions, and so on. They still need to do so, not only for a little exercise and socialization, but also to run errands, buy groceries, tend to the yard, and other reasons. An inability or unwillingness to leave the house is a sign an elderly parent needs help.
- The home isn’t being maintained: Some tasks, such as shoveling snow or mowing the lawn, are too difficult for many seniors and are usually handled by someone else. However, if an aging parent isn’t taking care of simpler household chores, such as dishes or laundry, it might be a sign he or she is struggling living alone. Also, check on your loved one’s pets—if they aren’t being cleaned up after or properly fed, you should be concerned.
- Financial problems: Look for bills that go unpaid (even when funds are available), purchased items your parent doesn’t need (a sign he or she has been carelessly ordering off TV shopping networks or online), or unusual charges on bank statements and credit cards (an indicator your parent is being scammed).
- Failing eyesight: One’s own home can become a difficult place if eyesight begins to fail. If your parent is struggling to see things, consider seeking more help.
- Frequent fatigue: If your parent seems tired every time you visit, it could be a sign of insomnia, depression, or another health issue that is affecting sleep and overall energy levels. Seniors sometimes suffer insomnia because they can’t get comfortable in bed, are experiencing anxiety, or struggle to move from a couch or chair to the bedroom.
- Early stages of dementia: Forgetting little things—the so-called “senior moments”—is a natural part of aging, but constantly forgetting basic tasks, responsibilities, and routines might be an early sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Aging in place with dementia is incredibly challenging for parents and their children alike and is a sure sign that a senior living alone needs more help.
The Senior Living Community Option
Often, the resistance to moving a parent from the home is that the alternative is an impersonal facility that feels anything but, well, homey. Fortunately, today’s senior living communities truly are communities dedicated to giving your loved one the highest quality of life. More important, seniors receive the help they need—help that might not have been possible on their own. Granted, the move can be difficult, but often, it better preserves independence, safety, and health more than living alone can.
What struggles have you encountered with an elderly parent living alone?