04 October 2010

How healthy are your parents?

Your parents are probably 20 to 30 years older than you are. Here's how to spot it when health starts to go wrong.


As we age, one of the most difficult issues to deal with is the face that after years of being strong and independent, we start to become dependent again, in little ways.

One of the manifestations of the distress this causes is the fact that many elderly people simply won't speak up when they need help. And that means we, their children, need to be watchful.

Problem is, we often don't know what to look out for. How can you tell how healthy your parents are, which diseases they're prone to, and which symptoms you should be looking out for? And how do you cope if they're actually living with you?

“Having your parents living with you is not easy at the best of times, especially if your relationship was somewhat stressed to begin with,” says Ilse Pauw, Health24 writer and Cape Town psychologist. “There are many control issues that can surface, and health (and symptoms of ill health) are often areas of great contention.

"Many elderly people experience recommendations of lifestyle changes from their children as interference, and can get quite resentful. These recommendations are best left to the professionals.

“It must also be remembered that lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking or drinking, starting to take regular exercise, cutting out certain foodstuffs and remembering to take medication are never easy to achieve, and the older you get, the more effort it could take to achieve these lifestyle changes. Don't get impatient with them,” she says.

“There are other problems involved, such as minimising the seriousness of symptoms the elderly may be experiencing, and reluctance to consult a GP regularly. This is often as a result of fear of hospitalisation or institutionalisation or a very real fear that the chest pain may be something more serious than muscle strain.”

So which diseases are your elderly parents most likely to suffer from and what are their symptoms?

Arthritis. This could be osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. The symptoms of these include joint pain, greater immobility, hesitancy to partake in physical activities that were enjoyed before and sudden, constant taking of painkillers.

Prostate problems/bladder problems. Obviously the prostate problems could only be experienced by men, but both these problems are often characterised by frequent urination and obvious discomfort. Sometimes urinary incontinence or inability to urinate may result.

Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and stroke. Parkinson’s disease is most often characterised by tremors, especially in the hands. The onset of Alzheimer's is often gradual and could include forgetfulness, inappropriate behaviour, lack of domestic organisation, disorientation and a changing of normal routine or habits. Mild strokes are often not immediately apparent, but could be characterised by sudden inability to do normal tasks or to become suddenly forgetful.

Cardiovascular diseases. Among these are congestive heart failure, valvular heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure.) These often don’t have obvious symptoms, unless the person has arrhythmia. Chest pain and breathlessness can sometimes be present, but heart disease can strike out of the blue, with no prior warning.

Type 2 diabetes. The most common symptom is a sudden increase in both water intake and urination. Sudden weight loss or weight gain is another symptom. If left untreated, diabetes can have very serious consequences, especially in the elderly.

Cancer. The types of cancer could include breast, prostate, colon or lung cancer. These are the most common types of cancer in the elderly, although by no means the only ones. Cancer in the early stages is difficult to diagnose, but is sometimes characterised by non-painful lumps or tumours, a sudden unexplained weight loss, lethargy or a difference in the way a person’s body functions. Regular checkups are essential for everyone, and all the more so for the elderly.

Depression. Many elderly people suffer from depression. Often they feel isolated, their spouses have died, their social lives are dwindling, they have financial worries and their health may be giving them problems. Be on the lookout for classic signs of depression in your parents, such as early morning waking, a change in eating patterns and a negativity about activities that were formerly enjoyed.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated October 2010)


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