Don’t know when to get further assistance for your aging parents? Read on for 4 signs to signal when aging parents can’t live alone.
Updated for accuracy and relevancy on November 29th, 2023
Getting older is a part of life, as is watching your parents age. While previous generations would move aging parents into nursing homes or assisted living facilities after a certain age, an increasing number of older Americans are choosing to age in place — opting to enjoy retirement and beyond in a familiar environment. The shift toward aging in place and away from nursing homes is owed largely to older populations wanting to hold onto their independence as long as they can. But at a certain point, the risks associated with aging parents living alone may far outweigh the benefits.
Before navigating how to become a cargiver for a family member, make sure you understand the signs of aging parents who need support. Below, we outline the signs of when aging parents can’t live alone anymore, as well as some potential ways to ensure aging parents are properly cared for.
While aging is universal, the ways in which we begin to show our age can be as unique as a fingerprint. Some may find those aging parents can safely enjoy the freedom of living alone well into their 70s or 80s, while conditions like dementia or physical limitations may result in relatively young parents needing round-the-clock personal care. Though no two situations will be the same, here are a few key signs that an elderly parent can no longer live alone.
As we age, things that were once easy can start to feel like gargantuan tasks. Climbing up stairs, grabbing things from taller shelves, and driving to the supermarket can be challenging — if not dangerous — and it’s when parents begin to struggle with these tasks that the need for everyday assistance might arise. Difficulties with daily tasks may not be entirely obvious, but by keeping an eye out for tell-tale signs, you can get a better idea of whether living alone may no longer be the best option.
Hygiene can be an early indicator, as daily tasks like shaving, bathing, or dressing may grow too cumbersome. If you notice that your elderly parent’s home has begun falling into disarray, or if otherwise regular chores (like lawn maintenance or gardening) are not being accomplished, these may be key indicators that age-associated physical limitations are getting in the way and your older parent may need assistance.
As children, we may tell our parents little white lies or stretch the truth from time to time. But if aging parents are beginning to make excuses or be dishonest about recurring problems, it may be time to intervene. Doctor’s appointments may begin to slip your parent’s mind, they may forget to take their medicine, or they may attempt to make excuses about new bumps or bruises. No matter how dishonesty manifests, pay attention.
With that said, it’s important to note that these excuses or lies are not meant to pull the wool over your eyes or betray your trust. The inability to accomplish regular tasks as a result of age, as normal as this is, can feel embarrassing to some. Your parent’s go-to response might be to be defensive. But by addressing these concerns with empathy and understanding, you can help your older parent recognize that these changes are normal –– and that your outreach is from a place of love.
When parents age and routine tasks begin to slip their minds, their hygiene and health may also begin to slip. Financial health, too, can take a dip, and it’s important to note when your parents are beginning to have struggles with personal finances. This can manifest in the form of bills being paid late (or missed entirely), or even checkbooks not being balanced as per routine. No matter how these struggles appear, they can be a sign of a larger issue.
In many cases, aging and retired parents may find themselves in a precarious financial situation overall. This may be the result of irresponsible spending, reduced income, or unsound investments. If you recognize that your aging parent’s finances are on a steep decline, exploring alternative living situations may be instrumental in preventing further damage.
For many, a parent experiencing a fall can be a much-needed wake-up call that daily living on their own is no longer a viable option. However, accidental trips and falls aren’t always emblematic of deeper issues –– it’s when these falls become consistent that aging in place may no longer be an option without certain home modifications. But when installing handrails, lowering cabinets, and widening doorways is still not enough to keep your aging parent safe, it may be time to exchange independence for safety.
Just because parents are no longer fit to live on their own does not necessarily mean their well-being is in jeopardy. But when it becomes clear that a parent’s current living situation could be potentially dangerous, it’s important that you act fast and begin exploring other options before something bad happens or you start to experience caregiver fatigue. Fall-related injuries are certainly cause for concern, as are struggles with daily activities. But ultimately, the point at which you decide to intervene will come down to how well you know your parent. Something like forgetting to balance a checkbook or take out the trash may seem small, but if you know your parent well enough to know these are things they would never neglect, it could be time to intervene.
It’s not always enough to recognize when aging parents can’t live alone anymore –– you should also be paying attention to events leading up to this decision. In particular, recognizing signs of declining health can give you the time you need to explore alternative living situations for your aging parent.
Memory loss may be the first indicator that an aging parent’s health is declining, and this change is not one to take lightly. Sure, most elderly adults suffer from forgetfulness now and then, but things like aging parents asking the same question repeatedly, forgetting the names of friends and loved ones, or routinely losing track of household options are typically representative of declining health.
When parents begin spending more time alone at home and less time spending time with friends, neighbors, or engaging in cherished activities, it could be a sign that their health is on the decline. In this case, self-isolating is a symptom of other issues — like struggles with direction, difficulty driving, or worsening memory. If you notice an aging parent is no longer engaging in their favorite activities or spending time with friends, take note.
Unexplained weight loss may seem like an obvious sign of declining health, but some children may fail to notice when an aging parent is losing weight. Dramatic weight loss can be a result of an illness or disease, but this is not always the case. Like self-isolating, losing weight can be a symptom of a memory or mobility issue. Aging parents may forget to eat or drink when needed, or may face physical limitations or even the fear of falling on the way to the kitchen.
If the above signs have stood out to you, or you recognized some of the declining health indicators, you might want to begin exploring alternative living situations for your aging parent. These alternatives can be costly, and can require some major lifestyle changes on behalf of you, your parent, or your family. But if your parent’s health, happiness, and independence are a top priority, they’re more than worth exploring. From live-in medical care to elevated retirement communities, here are just a few of your options when aging parents can’t live alone anymore.
As mentioned above, moving an aging parent into an assisted living facility or into your home can be financially and emotionally taxing. However, it's important to consider how your loved one might feel about the process. Losing independence, leaving home, and feeling like your own body is betraying you at times can be frightening and humiliating. Make an effort to reassure your parent through this process, and give your parent as much time as possible to make the transition more comfortable.
Further, when deciding on an alternative living situation, do your best to think about the best option for long term care. Moving your elderly person— whether to an assisted living facility, a retirement community, or in with you — can take some serious adjustment for all parties, and you’ll want to be sure this move is sustainable. While a retirement community might meet the needs of your aging parent now, if their health is declining, it’s possible that they’ll need more attentive senior care before long. Plan with this in mind to ensure they aren’t being repeatedly uprooted. If you suspect a change is imminent, it might be best to allow a parent to age in place with the help of a home health aide until the relocation is absolutely necessary.
Caretaking for aging parents can be both a deeply fulfilling and challenging responsibility, and the question of compensation often arises. The landscape varies across different states, with 12 states and the District of Columbia offering paid family leave specifically for the care of a spouse. Additionally, in 30 states, adult children may bear legal responsibility for their aging parents' care if the parents are unable to do so themselves. However, the implementation of these statutes varies, with 11 states yet to put these laws into practice. The bottom line, however, is that payment for caregiving is possible if all parties involved agree. To formalize such an arrangement, resources like the FCA fact sheet on Personal Care Agreements can be invaluable. Moreover, if the care recipient is eligible for Medicaid (MediCal in California), compensation through programs like In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) might be a feasible option. Ultimately, the viability of payment for caretaking hinges on various factors, including legal obligations, available resources, and mutual agreement between the involved parties.
Aging may be a part of life, but watching an aging parent begin to struggle with everyday tasks and lose their independence can still be painful. The best thing you can do as an adult child or caregiver is to be prepared when the time comes that they can no longer live on their own –– and approach the situation with both love and empathy. By recognizing the above signs early and keeping your aging parent’s needs top of mind, you can find an alternative living situation guaranteed to give them the life they deserve.
To learn more about healthy aging in place, and how you can continue to support your aging parents, discover some of our other family caregiving resources.
1. How Much Does Assisted Living Cost? Where You Live Matters. https://www.whereyoulivematters.org/how-much-does-assisted-living-cost/
2. Getting Paid to Care for Mom or Dad. Are You Eligible? https://www.payingforseniorcare.com/paid-caregiver/elderly-parents
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