When to Assume Care of an Elderly Loved One

How do I know when it's time to take on more personal responsibility for the physical well-being of my aging parents? They're getting older, and I can already see that I'm going to have to assume a larger portion of their care in the very near future. What can I expect as they age?

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Aging and death are inescapable realities of life. From a spiritual perspective, the Bible teaches that we’ve been born into a sinful, fallen and degenerating world (Romans 3:23; Romans 8:19-23; Hebrews 9:27), and that as a result each one of us awaits an appointment with death. Scientifically speaking, there are many theories as to why we age and die. Some blame impaired cell function or a less effective immune system. One idea suggests that certain organs in the body – primarily the hypothalamus – are genetically programmed to run down with time.

Gerontologists have described “usual” or “successful” aging as a series of bodily changes resulting solely from the aging process and generally unaffected by disease, lifestyle or environmental factors. We don’t know your parents’ personal histories or current circumstances, but if they’re aging “normally” or “successfully” you can expect them to encounter some of the following challenges as the years pass:

  • Fatigue, dizziness and falls, due partly to declining regulatory systems and partly to emotional or physical stress.
  • Loss of appetite and slowing of digestive and urinary functions. This can include increasing trouble with constipation and a rise in bladder control problems.
  • Respiratory problems due to decreasing elasticity of the lungs.
  • Deterioration of skin and muscles.
  • Decreasing visual acuity due to cataracts and stiffening of the lens.
  • Decreased efficiency of the immune system.

As already noted, these phenomena are all part of the normal aging process. Despite these changes, your parents’ organ systems can continue to operate efficiently unless injury, illness, or intense stress pushes them beyond their limits. But such physiological changes do have the potential to increase an elderly person’s chance of developing other problems. Chronic conditions that may arise are heart disease, visual impairment, diabetes, arthritis, or high blood pressure, while acute conditions can include everything from broken bones to pneumonia.

At some point, one or more of these conditions will almost certainly require your parents to seek the specialized care of a physician. They may also necessitate your involvement in meeting their practical and physical needs at some level or another – sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. As time goes by, you will be able to judge their ability to take care of their personal needs, handle routine business matters, and keep up with household chores. To express it another way, you will know when it’s time to step in if you go to the trouble of maintaining a close relationship with your parents. They may even ask for your help when they need it. Meanwhile, if you can keep up fairly regular contact with their physicians, you will be in an even better position to gauge their ability to manage their affairs without your assistance. It is far better to over-communicate than to under-communicate when it comes to the health of aging loved ones.

For additional help and information on this topic, we’d encourage you to consult the resources and referrals highlighted below. Or if you have relationship concerns and challenges associated with this situation, please don’t hesitate to call our Counseling department.


Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging


Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2002, Focus on the Family.

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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