Signs to Watch Out For Elderly Decline

Growing older can be a trying experience. Occasionally forgetting to pay bills or taking longer to learn a new skill may frustrate older adults and their caregivers. Fortunately, these examples are all a normal part of the aging process and usually are not a cause for major concern.

But when do certain issues go beyond just aging and into something more?

For the nearly 53 million family members-turned-caregivers in the United States, knowing elderly decline signs is crucial for them getting their loved ones proper care.

Normal Aging vs Elderly Decline

An older woman looks out the window, with text that says "Elderly decline - learn the warning signs"

The normal aging process can be frustrating, but typically no cause for major alarm. The signs of normal aging come about gradually, subtly, and are not severe. They typically manifest as someone steadily becoming just a little slower with their thinking processes and perhaps having a harder time maintaining attention. Otherwise, the individual is okay and their day-to-day life is not majorly affected.

When physical or cognitive decline is severe and rapid, something more than normal aging is likely occurring. With issues like dementia, for example, the individual will experience issues with tasks like complex problem-solving and communicating with others; their motor system may even be affected. When these issues occur, people typically have issues completing activities of daily living on their own.

Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) and Functional Decline

Activities of daily living, oftentimes known as ADLs, are activities that people need to perform on a daily basis to have a decent quality of life.

There are six basic, or physical, ADLs:

  1. Ambulating – being able to move about
  2. Feeding – being able to feed one’s self
  3. Dressing – being able to select outfits and put them on
  4. Personal hygiene – being able to perform basic hygienic tasks
  5. Continence – being able to hold off urination or bowel movements until a toilet is available
  6. Toileting – being able to use a toilet without creating a mess

There are also instrumental ADLs (IADLs), which are activities that require complex thinking. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) identifies 12 IADLs:

  1. Care of others
  2. Care of pets
  3. Child rearing
  4. Communication management
  5. Driving and community mobility
  6. Financial management
  7. Health management and maintenance
  8. Home establishment and management
  9. Meal prep and cleanup
  10. Religious and spiritual activities and expression
  11. Safety and emergency maintenance
  12. Shopping

Experts define functional decline as the inability to perform ADLs due to decline in cognitive and/or physical function. Over 1 million adults in the United States over the age of 50 require help with ADLs, according to AARP.

When is It Time to Seek Help?

When individuals can no longer perform ADLs by themselves, it’s time to seek professional help.

This help can come in many forms, including:

10 Signs of Elderly Decline

Signs that older people are experiencing elderly decline may include the following:

  1. Newfound difficulty recalling common terms or words
  2. Forgetting to eat on a regular basis
  3. Extreme changes in sleep patterns
  4. Not performing basic hygiene activities on a regular basis
  5. Forgetting the names of loved ones
  6. Socially withdrawing
  7. Not taking medications as prescribed
  8. Letting laundry pile up to an unreasonable extent
  9. Experiencing coordination or balance problems
  10. Incontinence

Signs of Dementia

Dementia is the umbrella term for severe decline in memory, problem-solving, language, and similar skills. The decline must be severe enough to affect daily life in order for someone to receive a dementia diagnosis.

Hearing that a loved one has received such a diagnosis can be a terrifying experience. While there is no way to completely ease that pain, knowing more about the condition can make deciding your next steps just a little bit easier.

Signs and symptoms of dementia include the following:

  • Poor judgment
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Decline in decision-making abilities
  • Mood changes
  • Memory loss and other memory problems

It’s important to note that these symptoms may not necessarily indicate that elderly people have some type of dementia. Side effects of other medical conditions can mimic dementia, which is why it’s necessary to see a professional healthcare provider to receive a proper diagnosis. This diagnosis will inform treatment, referrals, and care.

3 Stages of Dementia

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes 3 basic stages of dementia:

  1. Early – early signs include forgetfulness, issues with tracking time, and wandering familiar places
  2. Middle – signs include forgetting specific events and names, communication difficulties, and requiring help with personal care tasks and daily activities
  3. Late – symptoms include completely losing track of time and place, mobility issues, and behavioral changes like increased aggression

Types of Dementia

According to WHO, roughly 50 million people worldwide live with dementia. A significant portion of these cases (perhaps between 60%-70% of cases) have Alzheimer’s disease, although plenty of other kinds of dementia exist.

Progressive forms of dementia—aka dementia that progressively worsens and for which there exists no cure—include the following:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Frontotemporal disorders
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and dementia (VCID), which includes vascular dementia
  • Mixed dementia (2/more types of dementia)

10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

6.2 million adults in the United States aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, making it the most common form of dementia. According to the CDC, there are 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s:

  1. Disruptive memory loss
  2. Challenges in planning or problem-solving capabilities
  3. Difficulty completing once-familiar tasks
  4. Troubles with balance and judging distance
  5. Confusion with location and time
  6. (New) difficulties with writing and speaking
  7. Misplacing items and memory recall issues
  8. Decreased ability to make good decisions
  9. Social withdrawal
  10. Mood or personality changes

5 Emergency Signs

While signs of normal aging are often no cause for concern, there are certain symptoms that require immediate medical attention. Emergency signs of elderly decline include:

  1. Rapid unexpected weight loss
  2. Difficulty breathing
  3. No urination or bowel movements
  4. Difficulty swallowing
  5. Rapid drop in blood pressure, temperature, or heart rate

Final Thoughts

Growing older is oftentimes a less-than-fun process for all involved. That said, most signs of normal aging, such as occasional forgetfulness, are typically not cause for alarm. Other signs, such as rapid weight loss or forgetting the names of loved ones, can indicate that something more serious than normal aging is occurring.

While elderly decline can be scary to witness, knowing what signs to look for—and where to go for help if/when they emerge—can make deciding your next steps just a bit more bearable. If your loved one reaches the point that they can no longer live alone, you have multiple options available. If you decide to forgo caregiving (link to “i don’t want to care for my parents”) (and that’s okay!), a specialized senior living community might be the best place for your aging loved one.

Not sure where to begin? You can browse our directory—filled with thousands of senior living locations across the country—to get started.