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Caring for Aging Loved Ones

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

As your grandparents get older, you may catch one or both feeling confused about medication, having no need to leave the house, forgetting their appointments, purchasing unnecessary items, driving into a tree, or any number of things that shout for attention. Your worries and fears are warranted and you wonder how to care for them. Most caregivers are family members, and they are the first to notice even the slightest change in their senior’s behavior. You will also know when it’s unsafe for your loved one to live at home without the care they need.

How to Help Aging Family Members

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According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are 44 million family caregivers, which is nearly 20 percent of the adult population in the U.S. It's not so surprising that most caregivers are women, and that most caregivers are close family members. Often, these individuals are raising their own children as well—hence, the term sandwich generation. Caregivers, who are often over the age of 50 themselves, provide physical and financial assistance to elderly loved ones. The National Alliance has also found that while women provide the lion's share of basic care, both men and women also provide financial assistance, with an aggregate cost, in lost wages and benefits, of some $3 trillion annually.

I noticed that my mom is confused and forgets things. What can I do for her?

If you're noticing changes in your loved one's memory or changes in cognitive function, keep track of what is happening: Mom loses her keys or wallet all of the time. She leaves the stove on. She forgets that she already added salt to her meal. She got lost driving home. Have these changes transpired gradually, or have they happened suddenly? Where one day, your loved one is fine, and the next day they're confused. Write down when you noticed these changes and whether they happened in tandem with other events. Perhaps the changes occurred with a big move to a new home. Or after the death of someone close. Or maybe a family member got divorced. Did the changes occur because of medication? Did your loved one take a fall?

How do I share what I noticed with Mom and her physician?

After you write down the changes you noticed, share them with care and empathy. Also, suggest that you would like to accompany Mom on her doctor’s visit. Share your information with her physician. However, some older adults will not want you to accompany them. You will need to ask Mom whether you can communicate with her physician directly. Or perhaps she can deliver the information you have recorded.

How Relationships Support Healthy Aging

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Conventional wisdom says that one can live a long and meaningful life by keeping the mind sharp and the body moving. Plus, plenty of sleep, a healthy diet, and physical activity are all beneficial as well. Yet one of the more crucial items on the list, research suggests, is maintaining good relationships. Having a meaningful social life with close others who support you and listen to you can have a significant influence on overall health outcomes. In cultures with some of the world's longest average life spans—for example, Okinawa, Costa Rica, Greece—activity, diet, and close relationships are at the core of an elder’s everyday life. And in this Internet age, staying connected with friends and family who live across the country is getting easier. Plugging into social media may have its drawbacks, but pandemics notwithstanding, staying virtually connected is a positive.

Why are close relationships important for aging?

We all need our support systems and through all ages. But older adults should have a close network because of the assistance they require. Older people who no longer drive, for example, depend on others for many essential needs including groceries, supplies, or a ride to the doctor’s office. They may also need help with bill paying, estate maintenance, or other related tasks. Older adults who have robust networks fare much better in mental and physical health.

How does marriage impact health and happiness in older adults?

People rely on their partners more and more as they age. And husbands rely on their wives for emotional support throughout their lives. But for older adults, their networks of friends and support dwindles—people move away, friends die. Marriage becomes ever more important. Of course, good relationships are healthy for you, bad relationships are just plain bad. A long-time nagging and complaining partner is not supportive and does little for a person's health and happiness. This lack of support and unneeded strain is harder on men than on women, as women tend to be healthier and live longer than men.

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