How to talk to your elderly parents about their health

Posted on 6 April 2021

Elderly people may not want to think about the issues surrounding getting older and may not like their kids telling them what to do. Use this expert’s advice to help them help themselves.


It’s uncomfortable having to take on the “parent” role with someone who raised you. But the reality is, elderly people face increasing health risks with each passing year and often they need help – whether they want it or not.


Signs of ageing

One of the biggest concerns with seniors is that often it’s not just one serious illness you need to worry about, but a whole spectrum of them. “When people get older, one of the most common things we deal with is that they develop multiple illnesses that all occur at the same time,” says Dr Susan Coetzer, a geriatric specialist at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Joburg. “This leads to people getting more and more medications that all have potential interactions and side-effects.” Other major risks include falls and memory decline, including dementia.

What you can do: “Find out what they’re taking and who’s administering it,” says Dr Coetzer. If the elderly person is capable of taking medication themselves, a pill box is a good way to ensure they’re taking the right dose at the right time. “We also try to cut down medicines to only the absolute essentials,” she adds.



A generally healthy elderly person who doesn’t have many chronic conditions should go for a thorough health check-up once a year, says Dr Coetzer. If their health isn’t good, checks would be more frequent. Aside from medication, the doctor might prescribe nutrition or exercise interventions. “When you get older you have a natural decline in muscle strength and quantity and you want to keep those muscles strong to prevent loss of function,” Dr Coetzer explains. They might also recommend a home carer or that they be placed into a facility that offers care.

What you can do: Look for warning signs. If your elderly parent can’t do something – either physically or mentally – that they could do a month or two ago, that’s a red flag. It could be something as simple as working the TV remote, says Dr Coetzer. Also take note if they mention new pain or experience rapid, unintentional weight loss. And even one fall is reason for an assessment.


When the patient says no

Sometimes half the challenge is getting the elderly person to a doctor in the first place. “I tell my patients to compare it to your car,” says Dr Coetzer. “You have it serviced once a year and as it gets more mileage, this may be more frequently. Ageing is the same. If you go for regular check-ups and do certain activities like exercise, you can help yourself age with good health and dignity.”

What you can do: Be open and honest with your elderly parents and treat them with respect. “They may not remember what you just did, but they’ll remember if you did something in a bad way, or you were disrespectful or treated them in an undignified way. In the doctor’s room, talk to the patient, not about them or behind their back. Remember, they’re still humans and have a lot of wisdom even if they have memory problems.”


8 tweaks for a safer home environment for the elderly

  • Remove any tripping hazards, such as loose rugs and electrical cords.
  • Make sure floors are even and non-slip.
  • Install grab rails in the bathroom.
  • Put a non-slip mat in the shower and another one outside the shower.
  • Get a night light that works even during load shedding.
  • Encourage the person to strengthen their muscles with medically prescribed exercise.
  • Have an occupational therapist assess the space and identify any adjustments or assistive equipment needed. Examples include utensils adapted for arthritic hands, a raised toilet seat to help the person sit down and get up, or a big-button phone with amplified sound for those with sight and hearing problems.
  • Don’t buy a walking frame or stick without first consulting an occupational therapist. There are different types of frames, and you need to know which one suits your parent’s particular needs.


Source: Dr Susan Coetzer and others


Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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