Small Changes with a Big Impact

My greatest fear was that my father would die shortly after my mom died. Mom suffered for years from Alzheimer's disease and my dad was her most faithful caregiver and protector. What would happen when his reason for living was gone?

As the two year anniversary of my mothers death approaches, Dads still here. Hes a survivor and hes tough. I guess I already knew that. His presence and continued overall good quality of life at age 87 is a blessing.

Recently things have been changing for Dad. In the past few months, hes had two bouts of illness that really laid him low. They stripped off my rose colored glasses.

At his age, even a minor illness can end up being major and have unexpected consequences to his independence.

During a visit to my dads home, I came across a newspaper article published by a company that sells vitamins and other supplements that discussed some of what we were experiencing. They had coined the name senior sickness snowball effect. While I expect their hope is to sell lots of supplements, they have put a name to an all too common problem faced by many seniors and their families. The snowball is a slow senior decline characterized by minor illnesses followed by a loss of independence for the senior.

The snowball effect:

  • A minor illness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of energy and strength due to poor nutrition
  • Reduced social interaction
  • Reduced independence
  • Increased risk for depression and stress
  • Another minor illness

The cycle repeats and starts to deepen.

The net result is that your family members world gets smaller. Over time it gets progressively smaller as one illness follows the next. Not to sound too morbid but each set back may make you ask, is this the beginning of the end?

Here are six suggestions to help your family member combat the senior sickness snowball effect.

  1. Be alert to the beginning of the snowball effect. What might be a minor illness to you or I, for example a cold or urinary tract infection, can have a strong impact on an elder. Significant loss of energy or impaired thinking can accompany an illness. By providing support with daily activities like shopping or cooking, you may be able to short circuit the snowball effect by making sure your family member is eating well.
  2. The flip slide of item 1 is if an older family member has a sudden loss of appetite, reduced energy, confusion or memory loss, suspect a currently undetected minor illness and have your family member consult his doctor.
  3. Be patient and keep looking for improvement, healing in an elderly person takes time, usually much more time than it takes for a younger person. You are watching for and celebrating even the smallest of gains.
  4. While its natural to focus on day-to-day needs like grocery shopping, cooking and transportation to doctor appointments, don't forget to help your family member maintain and create social connections.
  5. Discuss appetite issues and nutrition with your family members doctor. Weight loss in an elder can mean trouble if he is not trying to lose weight. Eating a healthy and balanced diet is the best way to improve nutrition. Your doctor may recommend supplements too.
  6. Create a game plan to support your family member before he or she is ill that you can put into action easily. Taking action early can prevent the situation from getting much worse.

Dad's feeling better now and almost back to his usual self. His recent illnesses have made me more watchful. The next he catches a cold, my family will be ready to mobilize with support to get him feeling better as soon as possible.