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Patient Matters: Family Exam

'Tis the season to take stock of your parents' health.

WebMD the Magazine - Feature

Home for the holidays? Celebrating the season with your family is an ideal time to check on the health and well-being of your parents and other elderly relatives, especially if you live far away. What should you look for?

Living Space

Look at the layout and features of your parent's home. Are stairs becoming a problem? Make sure a handrail is firmly attached to the wall, and consider moving an upstairs bedroom to a downstairs room. Clear out crowded rooms to minimize the danger of tripping and falls.

Also, check the bathroom: If handrails aren't already in the bathtub and next to the toilet, look into having them installed.

Mental Health

If a parent or relative seems sad, tired, irritable, or less social, don't automatically dismiss these behaviors as normal signs of growing older. The problem may be depression, the most common mental health condition in later life. But despite what you may have heard, marked changes in personality are not necessarily part of getting older, according to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.

A depressed attitude may also indicate early dementia. A parent who often repeats questions and stories, fails to recognize people he or she knows, or forgets how to get to familiar places should see a doctor.

Physical Health

Does your parent have swollen ankles or gasp for breath after climbing a few stairs? A visit to the doctor may be in order.

If an older person has trouble following a conversation in a noisy room, it might be time to see an audiologist, who will test for hearing loss. One of the new hearing aids on the market can help this problem.

A parent who has trouble reading the newspaper or spotting details such as those on a granddaughter's dress, for example, may be developing cataracts or even macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. Make an appointment with an eye doctor.

Diet and Appetite

Has your parent lost weight? Perhaps preparing meals is getting too difficult, or he or she may no longer feel hungry enough to make the effort. You might suggest frozen meals prepared in a microwave, or nutritious and easy-to-make snacks.

Or contact Meals on Wheels (search by city and state for a local program) or a similar food-delivery company for a hassle-free solution to food preparation.

Driving Ability

Signs of unsafe driving -- such as forgetting how to locate familiar places, failing to observe traffic signs, making slow or poor decisions in traffic, driving at an inappropriate speed, or becoming angry or confused while driving -- could signal a more serious health problem, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Talk to your parent's doctor if you notice such changes, which could lead to a family discussion that could protect your parent -- and others.

Reviewed on November 01, 2005

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