The Four Most Unexpected Behavioral Changes in the Elderly – (“Is this normal?”)

Part I

September 24, 2015

We hear it all the time: “What is ‘normal?’”—a reminder that there’s a broad range of what’s considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviorally and that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others.

As a professional who counsels families dealing with issues on aging, I am here to tell you that here, at least, there are classic behaviors people tend to display as they grow older, making these behaviors on the one hand “normal,” yet in no way any less worrisome to you, the care taker, or close family member.

So today I thought I’d review three or four of the more pronounced changes you may have noticed in your aging mom or dad lately, and tell you whether or not these changes are simply typical, or ones which might indicate further investigating by a physician is necessary. However, I’ve decided instead to discuss just one change at a time during the course of the next couple of weeks as some of the more prominent changes manifested by aging can be rather heady.

And that, friends, leads us to the first unexpected change you may have noted in your own aging parent:

  1. Changes in hygiene

I hear this one all too often. “So-and-so absolutely refuses to bathe or shower. It’s become a real problem. She was always so fastidious about her hygiene, too!” It’s confusing, slightly embarrassing to discuss, and let’s be frank: it’s gross. Worse than all of those things, a lack of hygiene in the elderly is unhealthy, and that’s why this typical change in behavior is the one I mention at the top of my list as one not be ignored.

First, you may want to check with a medical professional about the norms of bathing at advanced age.  As people get older and perspiring activities are less common, a reduction in the frequency of bathing is understandable.  But body odor, oiliness, flakiness, and the aftermath of reflux and of visits to the toilet do need attending to. Equally problematic: sense of smell wanes as people age. Talk calmly to your parent and try to ascertain what’s going on here. Is this about forgetfulness on his or her part, or do you think that is Dad trying to exude some control over his own life through this apparent self-neglect? Is it possible that Mom is merely happily reliving a time in her life when dirt between the toes was a badge of honor for “flower” children?

What do you think is really going on with your mom or dad? Get out of your own head and look at things from his or her perspective. What changes, if any, have recently occurred—perhaps health- or mobility-related or even changes in residence or daily routine may have a sparked anxiety.

Make things as easy and as safe as possible for your parent. Make sure the bath or shower has been outfitted with a safe and comfortable shower chair, and that Mom or Dad can reach everything needed in order to get clean. In the end, relaxing your standards somewhat is probably the best idea. If you need to hire a nurse to come in and help make sure that your dad or mom has been bathed and put in clean clothes once a week, that’s great. Life will probably become a lot more tolerable for all involved, too.

Next time: we’ll discuss anger/agitation in the elderly. Until then, please know that I am here to help any family that is in crisis. Please reach out to me.

All the best,

Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.

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