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Today we’re covering a touchstone resource for geriatricians: the “Beers List” of medications that older adults should avoid or use with caution.

(Technically, it’s called “The AGS Beers Criteria® for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults.” I personally think of it as the list of “risky medications” for older adults.)

If you want to know which medications older adults, in particular, should be careful with, this is the list!

Now, I have good news and bad news about the Beers criteria.

The good news is that they were just updated and revised, so the Beers Criteria published in January 2019 is about as up-to-date as you can get for this type of guideline document. (Yay!)

The bad news is that this year, the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), which has historically made the list freely available to the public on HealthinAging.org, has not released the updated information for free on its page about the Beers Criteria. (Bummer!)

Instead, they’ve posted a notice that “To access the complete AGS Beers Criteria® and its related resources, please visit GeriatricsCareOnline.org.” From there, the article is available for purchase.

(My suggestion for those who really want the list: consider getting the handy 2019 AGS Beers Criteria® Pocketcard, which is $9.99. Or, ask your health provider to print it for you.)

I think it’s really too bad that it’s become harder for regular people to access this wonderful resource, but oh well.

Whether or not you obtain access to the full 2019 Beers Criteria, I still think it’s important for older adults and families to at least be aware that this resource exists, and to understand how it can help make the medical care of older adults safer.

You absolutely should know that experts in geriatrics and in medication safety go through a very careful process of reviewing the research on medications, and of updating this list of medications that older adults should avoid or use with caution.

So in this article, here’s what I’ll be sharing with you:

  • The story of the Beers Criteria
  • What’s in the Beers Criteria
  • How experts decide what to include in the Beers Criteria
  • How should health providers be using the Beers Criteria
  • Risky medications that I particularly pay attention to
  • What you can do, to be proactive about medication safety in aging

I also recommend listening to this recent podcast episode featuring geriatrician Dr. Michael Steinman, who is part of the expert panel that worked on the most recent update to the AGS Beers Criteria:

088– Interview: Avoiding Inappropriate Prescribing in Aging & What to Know About the Beers Criteria

The story of the Beers Criteria

If you spend enough time with geriatricians and other experts in aging health, you’ll notice pretty soon that we spend a lot of time reviewing medications, and considering whether to deprescribe them.

Medications are, of course, a mainstay of modern medicine. They are often key to how we manage a variety of health conditions, whether that’s by relieving a distressing symptom, reducing the risk of a future serious health event, or even helping the body correct a life-threatening illness.

But medications also come with risks and side-effects.

Aging makes people more susceptible to these downsides of all medications.  And, over the years, geriatricians have noticed that some medications, in particular, are more likely to cause problems or create extra risks.

These types of observation led a geriatrician named Mark Beers to publish a scholarly paper in 1991, identifying several categories of medication that seemed to be especially risky for nursing home residents.

Dr. Beers worked with various colleagues and organizations over the years to refine his list, which soon expanded its scope to consider which medications are potentially inappropriate for older adults who aren’t necessarily frail enough to be in nursing homes.

Dr. Beers died in 2009, but his “Beers Criteria” lives on. Since 2011, the process of reviewing and updating the list has been overseen by the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), which published updates in 2012, 2015, and most recently, in January of 2019.

What’s in the Beers Criteria

Technically, it’s “The AGS Beers Criteria® for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults.” The 2019 update is here.

This is essentially an extensive list of “potentially inappropriate medications” that should be avoided or used with caution, when it comes to the health care of adults aged 65 and older.

About “potentially inappropriate” medications in older adults

“Potentially inappropriate” means that in most older adults, the likely risks of using the medication outweigh the likely benefits, especially when compared with other available treatment options.

It’s important to know that just because a medication is “potentially inappropriate,” this does not mean that it’s always “wrong” to prescribe it to an older person.

But, since these are riskier medications for older adults, it’s important to

  • Take extra care before prescribing them,
  • Make sure that safer alternatives have been considered
  • Confirm that for a specific patient, the likely benefits of the medication outweigh the likely risks

Ideally, the risks of the medication would also be discussed with the older person and with family (when family is closely involved).

Research has repeatedly confirmed that these riskier medications are often prescribed to older adults, and that in many cases, it’s not clear that the risks were explained to the patients or that safer alternatives were offered.

What’s in the 2019 Beers Criteria

Recent versions of the Beers Criteria have organized potentially inappropriate medications into categories. The 2019 update’s categories include:

  • Medications that are potentially inappropriate in most older adults (Table 2)
    • These are grouped by therapeutic category (meaning, they name what organ or type of condition the medication is used for), and include a rationale as to why the medication may be inappropriate.
    • The recommendation for most medications in this long list is “avoid”.
  • Medications that are potentially inappropriate in older adults with certain conditions (Table 3)
    • The conditions listed include syndromes more common in older adults (e.g. history of falls, delirium, dementia or cognitive impairment) and also specific health diagnoses (e.g. Parkinson’s disease, kidney disease, heart failure).
  • Medications to be used “with caution” in older adults (Table 4)
    • This list identifies drugs for which there is some cause for concern, but for which the evidence is not yet sufficient to merit inclusion in the main “medications that are potentially inappropriate” list.
  • Clinically important drug-drug interactions to be avoided in older adults  (Table 5)
    • This list highlights combinations of medications that are especially common among older adults, and can be particularly risky.
  • Medications to be avoided or used in reduced dosage, for older adults with reduced kidney function (Table 6)
    • Since reduced kidney function is common among older adults (many of whom may not realize they are affected by this), this list specifies medications to avoid, or use in reduced dosage.
  • A list of “Drugs with Strong Anticholinergic Properties” (Table 7)
    • Since “anticholinergics” as a group are referenced in several different tables within the Beers Criteria, Table 7 provides a list of specific medications to avoid or use with caution.

The 2019 Beers Criteria also include additional tables, summarizing changes relative to the prior 2015 update of the Beers Criteria.

How experts decide what to include in the Beers Criteria 

To review, revise, and update the Beers Criteria, the American Geriatrics Society convenes an expert panel which includes physicians, pharmacists, and nurses, all with special expertise in geriatrics and in reviewing scientific literature.

This review process is very careful and takes time; for the 2019 update, the group met regularly from February 2016 to May 2018.

During this time, the experts review the available scientific research, and decide on what changes to make to the Beers Criteria. They also consider how to organize and present the material, to be most useful to the clinicians who are the primary intended users of the Beers Criteria.

In short, this is a very careful, thoughtful, and evidence-based process.

How health providers (and others) should use the Beers Criteria

The Beers Criteria is a terrific resource, when used appropriately.

To provide guidance on how to use the Beers Criteria, the AGS released a companion editorial, authored by two members of the expert panel: Using Wisely: A Reminder on the Proper Use of the American Geriatrics Society Beers Criteria®. (Free online to all.)

This editorial outlines these seven key principles to help clinicians and others appropriately use the Beers Criteria:

  1. Medications in the 2019 AGS Beers Criteria® are potentially inappropriate, not definitely inappropriate.
  2. Read the rationale and recommendations statements for each criterion. The caveats and guidance listed there are important.
  3. Understand why medications are included in the AGS Beers Criteria®, and adjust your approach to those medications accordingly.
  4. Optimal application of the AGS Beers Criteria® involves identifying potentially inappropriate medications and where appropriate offering safer nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies.
  5. The AGS Beers Criteria® should be a starting point for a comprehensive process of identifying and improving medication appropriateness and safety.
  6. Access to medications included in the AGS Beers Criteria® should not be excessively restricted by prior authorization and/or health plan coverage policies.
  7. The AGS Beers Criteria® are not equally applicable to all countries.

This recent editorial is useful, but there is even more valuable guidance provided in the 2015 version, which covers the same seven principles but includes additional information. You can find it here:

How to Use the AGS 2015 Beers Criteria – A Guide for Patients, Clinicians, Health Systems, and Payors

In particular, I like that the 2015 article includes a section on “Application of key principles for patients and caregivers.

The 2015 article also provides more specific examples of how clinicians could use the Beers Criteria.

In general, these editorials fall short of instructing clinicians on how to prescribe safely to older adults, or how to use the Beers criteria. As they note, the Beers Criteria is not meant to be the definitive word on prescribing, but rather is an important resource that fits into a “larger picture of improving prescribing for older adults.”

But, the gist is this: they suggest health providers take extra care when prescribing these medications to older adults, and also be vigilant for side effects, since older adults have a higher risk of experiencing these or being harmed by them.

Risky medications that I pay particular attention to

According to the John A. Hartford Foundation, the 2019 AGS Beers Criteria includes 30 individual medications or medication classes to avoid for most older people, and 40 medications/medication classes to use with caution or avoid when living with certain diseases/conditions.

Everything in the Beers List is important, but in truth, some medications on the list feel much more relevant to me than others.

That’s because some of these medications are widely used by lots of older adults, most of whom have no idea they are taking a potentially inappropriate medication. Whereas other medications, such as barbituates, are on the list but are hardly ever used any more.

So, without copying too much out of the Beers Criteria, here’s a brief list of the risky medications that I consider especially relevant to most older adults:

  • The 4 types of medications that affect brain function. These are listed in depth in my article on this topic, and are also included in the 2019 AGS Beers Criteria’s Table 3, in the list of medications to avoid in people with dementia or cognitive impairment. They should also be avoided when older people have delirium. They are:
    • Anticholinergics
    • Benzodiazepines
    • Non-benzodiazepine sedatives
    • Antipsychotics
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
    • These include common over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and naproxen (brand names Advil and Alleve), as well as prescription-strength NSAIDs, which are often prescribed for arthritis and other pain. I explain the risks of these medications in this article.
  • Aspirin for prevention (in adults age 70+ who have NOT had a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular event).
  • Proton-pump inhibitors.
    • These are medications that reduce stomach acid, such as omeprazole (Prilosec).  They are not recommended for chronic use of more than 8 weeks, unless there are compelling reasons to continue.
  • Medications to avoid or use with caution if there is a history of falls or fractures.
    • This is an important list since falls are really common in older adults.
    • The AGS 2019 Beers Criteria list for this includes:
      • Anti-epileptics (also known as anticonvulsants; these are sometimes used off-label for difficult dementia behaviors, see here.)
      • Antipsychotics
      • Benzodiazepines
      • Non-benzodiazepine sedatives
      • Antidepressants
      • Opioids
    • Note: in my own list of medications to review for fall prevention, I also include medications related to blood pressure (recommended by the CDC guidelines) and blood sugar (common sense; low blood sugar is common in older people on diabetes medications and is definitely associated with falls). For more, see here.

There are more medications in the 2019 AGS Beers Criteria to be mindful of, to be sure.  But the drugs above are the ones that I most commonly encounter and work on deprescribing when possible.

What you can do about medication safety in aging

So if you’re an older adult, or if you’re involved in the medical care of an aging relative, what can you do?

Dr. Steinman’s advice, which he shared in the recent podcast episode, is to be proactive.

Although we do have a lot of information available regarding which medications are risky for older adults, and how to manage medications more safely, it’s still very common for older adults to experience inappropriate prescribing and also harms from their medications.

Most health providers are well-intentioned and caring. But they’re also often lacking the time, resources, and supportive systems they need to be more careful about medications.

So for now, if you want to improve your chances of using medication carefully, here are some suggestions:

  • Always ask questions when a new medication is being prescribed, to make sure you understand why a medication is being prescribed and to confirm that it makes sense to proceed with this medication. Good questions for older adults to consider asking include:
    • Could this medication affect my balance or my thinking?
    • Is this medication listed in the Beers Criteria?
    • Can you please review with me what is the expected benefit of this medication, and what are the likely risks?
    • Are there any safer or non-drug approaches to treatment that I should be aware of?
    • Are there any particular side-effects I should look out for?
  • Ask to review medications after hospital discharge or a move from one healthcare location to another. Many medications prescribed during hospitalization may not need to be continued long-term.
    • Your usual health provider will be more likely to carefully review your post-discharge medications if you request this.
    • If you don’t have a usual health provider, you can still request an appointment with a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, to carefully review medications and discuss whether each is still likely to be beneficial.
  • Ask to schedule regular medication reviews with your health provider. Most experts recommend regular medication reviews for older adults.
    • I suggest yearly medication reviews, especially for older adults who are taking any medications listed in the Beers Criteria, or who take more than 5 medications.
    • I share a five-step process to help you prepare for a useful medication review here.
  • Regularly ask about deprescribing. Remember that when it comes to older adults and medications, less is often more. Deprescribing means reducing or stopping medications that may not be beneficial or may be causing harm, to maintain or improve quality of life.
    • For more on deprescribing, see this article, which includes links to a series of excellent consumer guides to help older adults discuss deprescribing of benzodiazepines, NSAIDs, proton-pump inhibitors, antipsychotics and more.
    • Deprescribing is much more likely to happen when older adults and families ask about it. So ask!

I know it can seem a bit daunting to start asking a lot of questions about your medications, or your older parents’ medications.

I also know that although many health providers will welcome your questions and be glad to see you participating in your care, others might give you a hard time, because they’re busy or maybe they just aren’t used to having to think over what they are prescribing.

Nonetheless, I want to encourage you to do it anyway! Yes, it can be a little extra work, but it’s your health and safety at stake. (Plus there’s your wallet, paying all those co-pays.)

Many older adults do need to be on medication. And, many of them are on more medication than is truly necessary.

You don’t have to be one of them.

You now know about the AGS Beers Criteria® for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults. You know that every few years, an ace team of experts is reviewing the medical literature and coming up with a carefully chosen list of medications that older adults should avoid, or use with caution.

Even if you don’t get a copy of the most recent AGS Beers Criteria, you can follow the suggestions listed above.

Find out if any of your medications are listed in the Beers Criteria. Ask about alternatives. Review medications regularly. Get medications deprescribed when possible.

With just a little bit of effort, I know that you will vastly improve the odds that whatever medications you — or your older relative — are taking are truly serving your health, and not exposing you to unnecessary risk.

Questions or comments? Please post them below.

And, don’t forget to listen to my interview with Dr. Michael Steinman. He really is one of the nation’s top experts on this topic, so there’s a lot to learn from him!

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As you may know, hospitalization is actually somewhat risky for older adults.

This is sometimes surprising to older adults and families. After all, hospitals are supposed to be places where people who are ill or injured can get the medical supervision and services that they need, to recover and be restored to health.

Well, it’s certainly true that hospitalization is often the only way for a person to obtain more substantial care from nurses and doctors. (There actually is an alternative called Hospital at Home, but it’s not widely available.)

If you’ve broken a hip, or have developed really significant shortness of breath from pneumonia, or otherwise are too unwell to be safely treated in the outpatient setting, hospitalization is often necessary. And since aging increases one’s vulnerability to a variety of health problems, older adults get hospitalized at higher rates than younger people do.

The problem, however, is that although hospitalization is intended to help patients, we’ve also realized that it tends to stress the body and mind in many ways. This is hard on every patient, but especially affects older adults. For instance:

  • Most people find it hard to sleep well in hospitals, in part because they are noisy and also staff may come in to check blood pressure, or draw blood during the night or early morning. This means many patients are sleep-deprived, which can interfere with convalescing, or worse yet, provoke delirium.
  • Delirium is very common in hospitalized older adults. This state of “worse than usual” mental function is very common after surgery, but also can be brought on due to the stress of medical illness and other factors. (Learn more here: Hospital Delirium.)
  • Lying in bed means that all patients start to lose strength. As one ages, this loss of strength and mobility happens even faster. So, many older adults can experience significant losses in strength and mobility during a hospital stay.

It’s no secret within healthcare that hospitalization is risky for older adults, and we’ve actually understood the reasons why for quite some time.

But until recently, hospitals didn’t seem to have the right incentives and support in making needed changes.

Fortunately, that is now changing, with the growth of the Age-Friendly Health Systems movement.

Creating Age-Friendly Hospital Programs

In a recent podcast episode, I interviewed UCSF geriatrician Dr. Stephanie Rogers, who has been applying the principles of Age-Friendly Health systems to create new inpatient geriatrics programs at UCSF Hospital.

Specifically, over the past few years, Dr. Rogers and her colleagues have launched:

  • An Acute Care for Elders Unit
    • This is a special hospital ward, designed to help older adults avoid many common complications of hospitalization, such as loss of mobility, loss of independence, falls, malnutrition, delirium, risky medications.
  • A Hip-Fracture Co-Management Service
    • Experts in geriatrics and orthopedics created a “best-practices” pathway for hip fracture, which is designed to minimize hospital risks and maximize the older person’s chance of returning to function. (Such “best-practices pathways” are important, because otherwise healthcare tends to be variable and it’s common for patients to not get whatever care is currently recommended as optimal.)
    • Every patient admitted with a hip fracture now gets seen by a geriatrician working in partnership with the orthopedics team.
  • A Delirium Reduction Campaign
    • UCSF is now screening all patients for delirium, and has trained staff in prevention and management.

All three of these programs are fantastic and are making UCSF’s hospital care much better and safer for older adults.

To learn more about them, and about Age-Friendly Health Systems, I highly recommend listening to the podcast interview with Dr. Rogers:

086 – Interview: Creating Age-Friendly Health Systems at UCSF

You can also download a transcript of the interview here:

Transcript: Creating Age-Friendly Health Systems at UCSF

Why Everyone Should Learn About UCSF’s New Age-Friendly Programs

If you don’t live in the Bay Area, do you need to know about these new programs at UCSF?

Yes! Here’s why.

First of all, whether similar programs are available at your hospital or not, it’s always a good idea to learn more about the risks of hospitalization in aging, and how they can be countered.

Far too many older adults and families are blindsided by common problems related to hospitalization, such as delirium or loss of strength and independence.

I don’t want people to be overly anxious about the risks of hospitalizations, but I do think it’s important to be informed, as this enables people to consider being proactive.

Next, if you want your local hospital to become more “age-friendly”, it will help if they hear that from you!

So if you’re an older adult, or concerned about an older relative, or in any way interested in how we can make healthcare better for older adults, I hope you’ll take advantage of the recent podcast episode.

The sooner we all learn more about Age-Friendly Health Systems, the sooner we’ll reach a point at which getting better and safer care becomes the norm for older adults, rather than the exception.

086 – Interview: Creating Age-Friendly Health Systems at UCSF

Transcript: Creating Age-Friendly Health Systems at UCSF

Questions about better and safer hospital care for older adults? Or about Age-Friendly Health Systems? Post them below!

The post How to Make Hospitalization Better & Safer in Aging appeared first on Better Health While Aging.

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This month — November — is National Family Caregivers Month.

If you’ve been in any way assisting another adult with managing health concerns or life tasks, you qualify as one of the estimated 40 million family caregivers in the US.

Such help often starts out with small things, such as helping an older relative get to appointments or assisting with grocery shopping.

But it’s also fairly common for families to end up providing quite a lot of care. A 2015 report found that on average, family caregivers provided 24.4 hours of assistance per week, and 23% of caregivers were clocking 41 hours or more.

Many people find themselves eventually struggling with the caregiving. Most of us haven’t prepared or been trained to do this, and many people are unsure of where to get information, help, or support.

So in this article, I’ll share some of my favorite resources to make family caregiving a little easier.

Recommended Websites for Family Caregivers

Here are some of my favorite websites providing practical and high quality information, to help solve common problems related to caring for older relatives:

Family Caregiver Alliance – This well-established non-profit has lots of resources for families caring for a relative, whether you’re just starting the journey or are a long-time caregiver in need of support. Their tip sheets contain excellent information. Other features I recommend:

  • The Family Care Navigator feature can help you locate public, nonprofit, and private programs and services in your area. This can help you find government programs, legal resources, disease-specific organizations and more.
  • There is also a free “CareJourney” feature, which is designed to provide customized support and information.

Administration on Aging: Eldercare locator – Enter your zip code and this government website will list key local agencies that can assist you with a variety of issues. These include:

  • Your local Area Agency on Aging
  • Your local Adult Protective Services office (essential if you’ve been concerned about elder abuse or self-neglect)
  • Any local agencies that assist with health insurance counseling
  • Your local long-term care ombudsman, which is an important resource if you have a relative in a nursing home or other long-term care facility
  • Low-cost legal services for older adults

AARP Family Caregiving – This section of AARP’s website offers a variety of articles and tools to help family caregivers. Some especially useful free resources include:

  • Prepare to Care guides, available in multiple languages
  • Training on health-related tasks (e.g. wound care, managing medications, and mobility) via the Home Alone Alliance project
  • A “We Need to Talk” free program to help you assess an older person’s driving and discuss your concerns
Online Communities and Support Groups

It always makes me a bit sad when a stressed out family caregiver tells me how isolated he or she feels. Most of them haven’t gotten around to finding a support group, in part because they are so busy.

Fortunately, the Internet makes it easy to access a variety of online support groups, some of which are quite active and give good support. Here are a few that I particularly recommend:

AgingCare.com Caregiver Forum – This is one of the more active online caregiver forums. It’s a good source of emotional support and ideas for navigating common caregiving challenges.

Daughterhood.org – This caregiving site is spearheading local “Circles” to help caregivers connect.

SmartPatients Caregivers Community — This community is a partnership with Family Caregivers Alliance.

If you’re a family caregiver and you’re wondering which to try: I would say subscribe to one or two communities and give it a few weeks to see how it goes. Stick with the one that has a vibe or style that feels helpful to you.

I really do think it is essential to connect with a group of people facing similar family caregiving challenges. Online groups provide a safe space to vent difficult emotions, validation for your efforts, practical ideas on how to move forward and — perhaps most important — reminders to set some limits and tend to your own needs too.

To Find Expert Assistance

Family caregivers manage quite a lot on their own. But sometimes, it can be very helpful to consult with an expert. Here are some of my top recommendations to help you locate the kind of expertise families often need:

Aging Life Care Association – Formerly known as the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. This site explains how aging life care professionals can help with common age-related challenges, and provides a directory to help you locate a professional. These professionals usually have to be paid out of pocket, but they can be a huge help for families providing care at a distance, or just if you need extra help problem-solving.

National Elder Law Foundation – This is the only national organization certifying practitioners of elder and special needs law; NELF’s Certified Elder Law Attorney designation is itself certified by the American Bar Association. The site includes a feature to help you find a certified elder law attorney near you.

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys – This is a larger non-profit organization and community of attorneys practicing elder law. There is a directory available.

How to Find Geriatric Care Near You – This BHWA article covers some options for locating a health provider who can offer healthcare adapted to the needs of older adults.

Two Excellent Reference Books to Have On Your Shelf

Both these books are WONDERFUL comprehensive resources, they suggest websites and organizations to contact for a variety of issues related to helping older adults. Great to have on your shelf!

Planning For Long-Term Care For Dummies, by Carol Levine.

How to Care for Aging Parents: A One-Stop Resource for All Your Medical, Financial, Housing, and Emotional Issues, by Virginia Morris.

Useful For Some Family Caregivers

This book isn’t relevant to everyone, but since I end up recommending it often when people write to me in the comments, I will post it here.

This book can be very helpful if you have an older parent who is demanding or is draining you or is otherwise stressing you out. It also addresses how to more constructively relate to an older person who complains a lot or is very negative. It is especially good for guidance on how to set some healthy boundaries and how to help without necessarily providing everything an older relative wants.

Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A Guide for Stressed-Out Children, by Grace Lebow and Barbara Kane.

What are your favorite resources for family caregivers?

Obviously, there are many more wonderful resources out there for family caregivers. There’s also the whole world of  information and support related to subsets of the family caregiving experience, including dementias such as Alzheimer’s, navigating hospitalizations and health-related services, and more. (I’ll have to cover those in future articles.)

Still, I’d love to know: If you’re a family caregiver: what have you found most helpful, when it comes to getting the information and support that you need?

And what has helped you find services and resources, to address whatever age-related challenges you’ve come across?

Please post your suggestions below, I’m looking forward to learning from you!

The post 13 Recommended Resources for National Family Caregivers Month appeared first on Better Health While Aging.

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Living wills. Advance directives. Powers of attorney for healthcare. Making your wishes known.

Many older adults have never gotten around to addressing these issues, and of those who have, many are overdue for a review.

After all, this is not something where you should “set-it-and-forget-it.” Especially not if you completed the paperwork with a lawyer years ago, and have experienced changes in your health since then.

But if you wanted to get started addressing this, you may have run into a few common hitches. The forms are often in legalese and hard to understand. And people often are sure just how to go about “making their wishes known.”

Fortunately, geriatrician Rebecca Sudore, MD, noticed this problem early in her career, and decided to do something about it.

Over the past 15 years, she developed and tested California’s first easy-to-read advance directive, then designed PREPARE, an easy online video program created to help older adults address advance care planning.

In a recent podcast episode, she and Dr. Kernisan discussed PREPARE, advance care planning, and how to make it easier for older adults to address what matters most to them when it comes to end-of-life planning.

This article will share some highlights and key points from their conversation, including:

  • The easy-to-read advance directives (and where you can get one)
  • Why advance care planning needs to include more than completing forms
  • How the PREPARE program helps older adults talk about what matters most
  • How to use PREPARE resources to help yourself or your loved ones talk about what matters and complete your planning

For more details, listen to the full podcast episode: Interview: Making Advance Care Planning Easier Through PREPARE.

Dr. Sudore’s first innovation: Easy-to-use Advance Directives

Dr. Sudore had been working on health literacy—translating complicated medical communication into more understandable language—when she became interested in the question of why didn’t more people complete an advance directive.

An advance directive is a legal document specifying your healthcare proxy and/or your wishes in the event of an emergency or life-threatening illness.

In looking into advance directives, Dr. Sudore noticed that the usual forms were not very user-friendly. They used a lot of legal terms and complicated language that even college graduates found challenging.

Dr. Sudore thought this might be an important barrier to people completing advance directives. So she decided to work with social workers, patients, and families to create a “plainer English” advance directive form.

After many years of hard work, Dr. Sudore and her team developed a new visually appealing easy advance directive. She worked with health literary experts to ensure it was written at the fifth grade reading level, making it comfortable for most adults to read.

The easy advance directive guides the user through choosing a medical decision maker and then makes it simple to specify some key health care choices. The form also provided clear instructions on how to have the form signed and how to know if a notary was needed.

A 2007 randomized trial found that most people preferred the easy-to-read advance directive, and that it led to higher planning completion rates.

Until recently, the easy advance directive was only available for California and a handful of other states. But thanks to funding from some foundations and generous donors, the PREPARE team was recently able to create easy advance directives for all 50 states. (Hurray!)

These easy advance directives are now available on the PREPARE website, right here. Every state has their own laws when it comes to advance directives, so it’s important to use the one intended for your state.

End-of-life planning is more than legal forms

In recent years, hospitals and medical centers have made a big push to get people to have an advance directive on file. But the truth is that planning ahead involves much more than signing forms, or specifying what people should do if you’re so sick you might die soon.

People often refer to “end-of-life planning,” but the more accurate term that health professionals now use is “advance care planning,” which the NIH National Institute on Aging defines as follows:

“Advance care planning involves learning about the types of decisions that might need to be made, considering those decisions ahead of time, and then letting others know about your preferences, often by putting them into an advance directive.”

In other words, “advance care planning” refers to a whole process of reflection, learning, and discussion with others, as well as to the creation of an advance care directive.

According to Dr. Sudore, three out of four people will need others to make medical decisions for them, at some point in their lives. This does happen at the end of people’s lives, but can also happen well before death, during a serious illness or due to a disabling condition such as dementia.

Without proper advance care planning, families often find it extremely difficult to make decisions on behalf of a loved one. Studies have found that making decisions for another person can lead to significant stress, family strife, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Completing a legal advance directive is important, but in her work Dr. Sudore noticed that often families reported that their loved one hadn’t actually discussed the form or their wishes with family beforehand.

Even when an advance directive was available, many families were unsure of how to proceed, because crucial conversations hadn’t taken place.

As Dr. Sudore states in the podcast, “advance directives are only as good as the conversations around them.”

For these reasons, Dr. Sudore has devoted much of her career to making it easier for people to have those conversations about what matters. The PREPARE program and the related resources on PrepareForYourCare.org are the result of this work.

How PREPARE makes advance care planning easier

Even when the easy advance directive was available, Dr. Sudore noticed that many older adults were still struggling with advance care planning.

In her research with various focus groups, Dr. Sudore found that older adults didn’t just need the “what” (advance directive forms), but also guidance on the “how”— how to define their values, determine what matters, and talk to their families and health providers.

To address this need, Dr. Sudore developed PREPARE, an online program using short videos and simple instructions to walk older adults through 5 key steps related to advance care planning:

  1. Choose a medical decision maker
  2. Decide what matters most in life
  3. Choose how much flexibility to give to your medical decision maker
  4. Tell others about your wishes
  5. Ask doctors the right questions

The PREPARE program and its website PrepareForYourCare.org were developed while working with older adults, and were designed to be easily accessible for all.  They are written at an easy literacy level (fifth grade and above), are available in English and Spanish, and have been proven to be usable and useful in clinical research.

The PREPARE website currently offers the classic program based on short videos, a printable workbook version of the program, advance directives for all 50 states, and a movie version designed to help break the ice and elicit meaningful conversations.

How you can use PREPARE to improve your advance care planning

recently published study found that in a 2012 survey of Medicare beneficiaries, only 38% reported having addressed all three key parts of advance care planning: having an end-of-life conversation, designating a health power of attorney, and completing a living will.

You and your family may have already addressed all three, but if you haven’t — or if it’s been a while — PREPARE offers a great way to address your advance care planning.

If you’re an older adult:

Visit the PREPARE site, and try out the program or workbook. Download the easy advance directive for your state, review it, and fill it out if you haven’t already.

If in the past you have already filled out an advance directive form, it’s especially valuable to take some time to review it. Chances are it’s a typical “standard” form in legalese. Updating it with one of the easy advance directives can help you clarify more of what matters to your family.

If you’d like to help an older parent with advance care planning:

Talk to your parent about PREPARE. Show them the website, or print out the workbook version of the PREPARE conversation guide.

You can also print out the easy advance directive for your state. Dr. Sudore’s latest research finds that the PREPARE program plus the easy advance directive is better than the easy directive alone. But some families might find it easier to focus on just the advance directive.

If your older relative seems reluctant to use PREPARE, you could offer to do it with them.

You could even tell them that you’re planning to address your own planning, and invite them to review theirs at the same time. This helps frame advance care planning is a normal and necessary activity that everyone should address regularly.

Another option Dr. Sudore suggests is to watch the movie with them and allow that to lead naturally to conversations.

Bear in mind that in many cases, it’s best to be gentle and patient when encouraging an older relative to address advance care planning. It’s okay to nudge but avoid creating pressure or stress. Many people will do better if they are given time to think things over.

If your older relative has Alzheimer’s or a related dementia:

At this time, PREPARE doesn’t offer any conversation guides or advance directives designed for dementia.

For dementia-specific resources for advanced planning, The Conversation Project offers a conversation starter kit designed for Alzheimer’s. You can also try going through this Advance Directive for Dementia.

Planning ahead is a gift that benefits you and your loved ones

It’s not easy to think ahead to a time when we might be dangerously ill or mentally incapacitated.

But it’s an effort worth making. It will help you get medical care in line with your preferences and values, when the time comes. And you will reduce stress and anxiety in those making decisions for you, by providing much-needed guidance.

It’s often been hard to figure out how to get started. But PREPARE makes it easy.

So we hope you’ll use the PREPARE program to help you think through what matters and have those vital conversations with your family.

And don’t forget about the easy-to-use advance directives— they’re free to use, and free of legalese.

In fact, Dr. Kernisan has been using Dr. Sudore’s easy California advance directive for over 10 years with all her patients. In the podcast, she asks Dr. Sudore why it’s not more widely used, given it’s been available for 15 years.

“Well, we need more people to know about it,” said Dr. Sudore.

Now you know. So take a look at PREPARE, and let others know about this remarkable suite of free resources, carefully designed by Dr. Sudore to help you and your family address what matters most.

For more on this interview and to use PREPARE:

And then let us know below: How have you addressed your advance planning so far? Have you had those key conversations with your family members and health providers?

The post End of Life Planning Made Easy Through PREPARE appeared first on Better Health While Aging.

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Worried about falls in an older parent or relative? If so, do you know if their doctor has considered the most useful prevention approaches?

Fall risk can be reduced, but it generally takes some thought and effort. That’s in part because most older adults have multiple factors making them vulnerable to falls.

In a related article on this site, I’ve explained that best fall prevention plans involve identifying an older person’s particular risks — especially risks related to health conditions — and trying to counter those.

So for instance, if an older person has diabetes and is having frequent moments of low blood sugar (also known as hypoglycemia), then to reduce falls, addressing the hypoglycemia is as important, if not more, as starting an exercise program.

In other words, I always recommend that aging adults and families learn to tailor their fall prevention plans. You want to focus on what are the most important modifiable risk factors for that individual person.

That said, over the years I’ve noticed that there are four approaches that I find myself using over and over again, in almost all my patients who have had repeated falls.

These four approaches are used often by geriatricians, but much less often by busy primary care doctors. Unless, that is, a proactive family asks about them.

My Four Most-Used Fall Prevention Approaches

They are:

  • Medication review, followed by reducing medications that increase fall risk.
  • Checking blood pressure (BP) sitting and standing.
    • This to make sure that BP isn’t overall on the low side (e.g. sitting systolic BP less than 120), and also that it’s not dropping a lot when the older person stands up.
  • Gait, strength, and balance evaluations, often in collaboration with physical therapy.
    • An evaluation often confirms that an older adult has poor balance and diminished leg strength. Doing exercises specifically designed to improve balance and strength, such as the Otago program, can counter this.
  • Home safety assessment and modification, in collaboration with occupational therapy when possible.
    • An occupational therapy evaluation usually needs to be ordered by a health provider, as part of skilled home health services.
    • The Occupational Therapy Geriatric Group at the University at Buffalo also offers an excellent free home safety workbook here: Home Safety Self-Assessment Tool (HSSAT)
What about Vitamin D for fall prevention?

I do still recommend that most older adults take a vitamin D supplement, however, I no longer particularly recommend it for fall prevention.

Vitamin D used to be my fifth general recommendation for fall prevention. Even though it seemed the effect on falls reduction was small, at least it’s an easy thing to implement, and a daily dose of 800-1000 IU/day is extremely unlikely to cause harm.

However, the accumulating research evidence has been suggesting that Vitamin D supplementation has no benefit, when it comes to preventing falls. (At least, not in “community-dwelling” adults over age 65, which means older adults who are not in the hospital or in nursing homes.)

In 2018, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended against Vitamin D supplementation to prevent falls in community-dwelling older adults.

Caveat: they say “Recommendations apply to community-dwelling adults not known to have osteoporosis or vitamin D deficiency.”

That is actually a fairly large group to exclude, given that both osteoporosis and vitamin D are fairly common.

Since vitamin D is unlikely to cause harm and may help some older adults, I still recommend it, just not specifically for fall prevention.

For more, see Vitamin D: the Healthy Aging Dose(Plus Answers to 7 FAQs).

Review your fall prevention plan if you’ve fallen or been concerned!

Perhaps the most important strategy to apply is to be proactive in getting help with falls.

Research has found that older adults often don’t report falls to their health providers. Worse yet: when they do, health providers often fail to provide adequate evaluation and management in response.

So, although it’s good to tell your doctor if you’ve fallen, it’s even better to do a little homework and be ready to ask about the four fall prevention approaches I’ve listed in this article:

  • Medication review, followed by reducing medications that increase fall risk
  • Checking blood pressure sitting and standing
  • Gait, strength, and balance evaluations, often in collaboration with physical therapy
  • Home safety assessment and modification, in collaboration with occupational therapy when possible

Here are some related articles to help you:

If you want to equip yourself to be even more proactive, you can learn more about how your health providers should be addressing falls on the CDC’s STEADI website.

I’ve also recently compiled a Fall Prevention Resource Guide, click the link below to get your free copy of this PDF resource. It’s short and lists my top recommended online fall prevention resources, so that you have a way to find them fast.

Get Your Free Fall Prevention Resource Guide! A handy short PDF to help you quickly find the key online resources mentioned in this article. Click here to download.

With some gentle reminders from you and others, your health providers will do a better job helping you reduce falls.

Questions or comments? Post them below!
This article was revised and updated on 9/21/18.

The post How to Prevent Falls: 4 Proven Approaches To Ask Your Doctor About appeared first on Better Health While Aging.

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Most older adults don’t need much help from others.

In fact, many of them are quite busy assisting others and otherwise contributing to their families, communities, and/or workplaces.

But of course, many older people eventually do need some help from others, especially if they live into their 80s, 90s, or beyond. After all, only a minority of people transition from being fully independent to deceased, with no intervening period of needing assistance.

When an older person does start to need help, it tends to be close family members — assuming the person has family —  that step in: spouses, adult children, siblings, nephews or nieces, grandchildren, and so forth. In fact, family members are by far the number one source of “long-term care supports and services” for older adults.

Sometimes providing this support can be fairly straightforward: a little help with transportation, or arranging for some assistance with shopping or household chores.

But in other cases, family members find themselves having to take on quite a lot. This is often due to health issues affecting the older person’s ability to remain independent and manage various aspects of life.

Some situations that commonly bring this on include:

  • An older person starting to develop dementia, such as Alzheimer’s or a related condition
  • Advanced chronic illnesses that limit daily function and/or cause frequent hospitalizations, such as advanced heart failure, advanced chronic pulmonary disease, or a progressive neurological condition
  • Sudden disability after a fall, stroke, or other health emergency
  • Difficulty recovering from a hospitalization, especially if the older person experienced delirium or other complications
  • Advanced age, which can eventually bring on general frailty and loss of physical strength. Very advanced age also tends to bring on more noticeable age-related cognitive changes, and is a strong risk factor for developing dementia as well.

Most people are happy to be able to help an older parent or other loved one in need.

But it’s also common for people to end up feeling a bit confused or overwhelmed.

Trying to help an older parent tends to bring up lots of different issues that people haven’t prepared to address. And many people must continue to tend to their jobs, children, and other responsibilities, as they also start trying to figure their new caregiving role.

Over the past several years, both in my in-person doctoring work, and as an aging health expert writing online, I’ve seen countless people struggling to sort out just what their older parent might need help with, and how to help.

So earlier this year, I created an online program to help people with this: the Helping Older Parents Bootcamp.

As part of the Bootcamp, I created a list of the key domains that family caregivers usually have to address at some point.

I’ve been reviewing this list recently, since I’m getting ready to invite people to join the next round of the Bootcamp.

Since most Bootcamp participants found the list really useful, I thought I’d share it below.

9 Domains to Consider When Helping Older Parents

Here are nine types of issues that tend to come up, when helping older parents.

  1. Helping with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs)
    • These are key daily life tasks, which I describe in more detail here: What are Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) & Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs)?
    • Older adults often first need help with IADLs, which include things like managing transportation, finances, shopping, home maintenance, and meal preparation.
    • An older person’s need for assistance with ADLs and/or IADLs often determines what kind of care arrangements or housing arrangements a family might consider.
  2. Safety issues
    • This includes addressing issues such as financial vulnerability (or even exploitation), falls, driving concerns, and more.
  3. Medical and health issues
    • Medical concerns are fairly common in late-life. Many older adults have chronic conditions that require medications, monitoring, and other forms of ongoing management.
    • Older adults may also develop new symptoms or health concerns, and may need their family’s assistance in getting evaluated. Family members often help bring up questions and concerns to the health providers.
    • Most people will also need help when recovering from an illness.
    • Serious illness or certain chronic conditions can cause older adults to lose the ability to make their health decisions or oversee their own medical care. Family members must often make decisions due to a health emergency or mental decline.
  4. Legal and financial issues
    • Some older adults may lose the capacity to manage certain types of financial or legal affairs.
    • Even cognitively-intact older adults are vulnerable to financial exploitation.
    • Family members must often consider assisting with legal and financial issues.
    • Planning ahead and completing the necessary legal paperwork can make it much easier for a family to assist, if/when it becomes necessary.
  5. Housing issues
    • An older person’s housing situation often affects quality of life, safety concerns, the ability of others to provide assistance, and more.
    • Families must often consider questions such as:
      • Is the current housing situation a good fit for “aging in place”?
      • Is a more supportive environment, such as moving in with a family member, potentially necessary?
      • What other options (e.g. assisted living) would be financially viable, and could be considered?
  6. Quality of life and helping your older parent thrive
    • Beyond meeting basic needs, most families are also concerned about their older loved one’s quality of life.
    • This means considering issues such as social connectedness, purpose, autonomy, and dignity.
    • It’s also essential to learn more about what matters most to the older person, and what kinds of things they consider less important or would be willing to trade-off.
  7. Planning ahead 
    • Things to plan ahead for include future declines, emergencies, and end-of-life care.
    • Planning ahead tends to reduce later stress, hassles, and sometimes expenses.
  8. Managing relationships and family dynamics
    • Trying to help an older parent often brings on relationship challenges and difficult emotions.
    • Well-intentioned people often inadvertently treat older relatives in ways that threaten their autonomy or dignity, or otherwise strain the relationship.
    • It’s also common for family caregivers to experience relationship challenges with siblings, a caregiving parent, or others who are involved.
    • Most people benefit from learning and practicing better communication skills, to better manage these relationship dynamics.
  9. Self-care
    • Helping an older parent is rewarding but can easily become a source of chronic stress.
    • Because family caregivers are often busy, they can easily neglect their own needs and wellbeing, which can jeopardize their own health, and also affect their ability to care for and connect with their older parent.
    • Family caregivers can use a variety of self-care strategies to keep their caregiving strain manageable. These include joining a support group, asking for help, setting boundaries, alloting time to tend to one’s own health and other needs, and more.
    • I’ve also found that family caregivers can benefit from learning strategies to organize and prioritize what they are working on.

As you can see — and as many of you already know from personal experience — helping an older parent in late-life can be a pretty complicated endeavor.

This is in part because all the above domains tend to interact and overlap with each other. Some examples:

  • An older person’s medical situation often affects their ability to manage ADLs and IADLs, and their caregiving needs.
  • The intensity of the medical situation also affects how much time an older person and their family spend with health professionals, which affects everyone’s quality of life.
  • A family’s legal permissions to assist determine how easily they can help with medical issues, housing issues, financial issues, and more.
  • Relationship dynamics — and a family caregiver’s self-care — affect caregiving stress, which then affects one’s ability to help a parent, and the type of energy and patience one is able to muster when communicating with others.
  • Sorting through decisions — whether about safety, medical, housing, or anything else — should always involve considering the older person’s quality of life and what matters most to them.

And so forth.

Are you currently trying to help older parents?

If so, I hope you’ll find this list useful.

There is a lot on it, but with some persistence, you’ll eventually sort your way through it all.

Just don’t forget to address your self-care, ok?

And, if you’d like to get some extra help and guidance, then consider enrolling in the Helping Older Parents Bootcamp.

I first offered this online program earlier this year, and I’ll be opening up registration again later this month.

Here’s some of the feedback I got from the first group of participants:

“Your program and materials were outstanding. I learned so much and the extra resources you provided were invaluable and will be used as I move forward in this difficult situation with Mom.” — H.A.

“All of this was so helpful: legal issues to plan for, how to deal with driving concerns, how to care for an aging person, how to take care of myself, that it’s okay to take care of myself or have other priorities, that others have similar struggles, how to prioritize, how to build trust with my mom in her cognitive state…I can’t really think of one thing I would change. You made the format very user-friendly and professional.

I also received much-needed validation in terms of understanding that my concerns are part of a bigger picture that many are struggling with.”– Michelle T

“My career has been spent doing in person and virtual training on a variety of health-related topics, so I could be considered a “difficult” customer.

Yours is one of the best, most effective programs I have seen. Through this course you have created an extraordinary resource, building upon your great blog.” — Elizabeth B.

If the upcoming Bootcamp sounds interesting to you, you can sign up to get updates here. I’m planning to open up enrollment soon!

The Bootcamp includes live Q&A calls, online lessons, resource lists, cheatsheets, and more, all designed to help you better connect with your older parent and better understand how you can help them.

Otherwise, if you have any suggestions on how people can better navigate helping an older parent, or if you simply want to share thoughts on this topic, please post in the comments section below!

The post 9 Types of Issues to Address When Helping Older Parents appeared first on Better Health While Aging.

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It’s annoying but unfortunately true: most parts of the body work less well as one gets older and older.

This is even true of the brain, which is part of why it becomes more common to experience a “tip of the tongue” moment as one gets older.

Such age-related changes in how the brain manages memory, thinking, and other mental processes are called “cognitive aging.”

Understanding how aging changes cognition is important. It can help you understand what to anticipate when it comes to your own aging. It can also help families better understand the changes they’re noticing in an older person, and whether those are out of the ordinary or not.

Since I’ve often written about changes in thinking that are abnormal and concerning in older adults, I thought it might be helpful for me to write an article outlining what is normal and to be expected.

Specifically, I’ll cover:

  • How cognitive aging differs from other diseases and conditions that affect memory and thinking
  • 6 ways that memory and thinking change with aging
  • The difference between crystallized and fluid intelligence
  • How to tell cognitive aging apart from more worrisome changes
  • Practical takeaways and what you can do

Now, I’ll be frank. As you’ll see, most mental processes become less nimble with time. Just as your 75-year-old self can’t run as fast as your 30-year old self, your 75-year-old brain will, for the most part, not think as quickly either.

This can be discouraging news to many people. Which means they might feel reluctant to learn more about this.

But the news is not all bad. Yes, things tend to work a little slower and less well, but on the other hand older adults can often compensate by drawing on their experience. Cognitive aging also helps older adults become more optimistic and emotionally resilient, as I explain later in the article.

By better understanding cognitive aging, you’ll be better equipped to understand the older adults in your life, whether that is yourself or an older loved one.

How does cognitive aging differ from a disease or more concerning changes in mental function?

People sometimes have trouble understanding how cognitive aging is different from something more concerning, such as mild cognitive impairment, early Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related conditions they may have heard about.

A good explanation of the difference is available here, in the Cognitive Aging Action Guide published by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine), which issued a fantastic report on cognitive aging in 2015.

Basically, cognitive aging is the brain’s version of your body parts working less efficiently due to age, rather than due to disease or serious damage.

This loss of efficiency is gradual. And like many other age-associated changes in the body, cognitive aging tends to happen a little differently for every person, in part due to things like genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors.

But it’s not a disease. Very importantly: cognitive aging doesn’t involve neurodegeneration or significant damage to the brain’s neurons.

So whereas Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions cause neurons to become badly damaged and eventually die, in a normal older person with cognitive aging, the brain’s neurons are basically ok, they’re just working less quickly and less well than earlier in life.

Although cognitive aging does cause certain mental processes to happen less quickly, normal cognitive aging should not impair an older person’s abilities to the point that they are visibly struggling with life tasks or no longer able to live independently.

6 Ways that Memory and Thinking Change With Aging

People often think of memory when they think of cognition or “brain function.” But there’s actually much more to thinking and the brain’s work.

Here are six key ways that cognition changes with aging.

Processing speed

What it is: This refers to how quickly the brain can process information and then provide a response, such as making a movement or providing an answer. Processing speed affects just about every function in the brain. Processing speed in of itself is not a specific mental task, it’s about how quickly you can manage a mental task.

How it changes with aging: 

  • Processing speed decreases with age, with one expert describing it as a nearly linear decline.
  • This decrease starts in early adulthood, so by the time people are in their 70s or 80s, processing speed is significantly down compared to the speed one had in one’s 20s.

Practical implications: 

  • Older adults need more time to take in information and to formulate an appropriate response, compared to their younger selves.
  • Some older adults may struggle with complex tasks that require a lot of quick information processing.
    • Driving, in particular, can be affected by slower processing, because driving requires the brain to keep noticing and processing a lot of information while quickly formulating appropriate responses.
Memory 

What it is: This is a broad category covering the ability to remember information. Key sub-types include:

  • Working memory
    • This refers to the ability to temporarily hold information in mind and manipulate it mentally, like remembering a new phone number and then dialing it.
    • Working memory is involved in a variety of mental tasks, including problem-solving, making decisions, and processing language.
  • Semantic long-term memory
    • This refers to factual information that you acquire over time, such as the name of a state capital.
  • Episodic memory
    • This refers to one’s memory for personally experienced events that have happened at a particular place or time.
  • Prospective memory
    • This refers to the ability to remember to do things in the future.
  • Procedural memory
    • This is also known as skill learning. It refers to the learning and remembering how to do certain activities.
    • It usually requires time and practice to build up.

Memory is actually a complicated topic, one can identify many other subtypes and experts are also still debating just how to categorize and explain the many different ways that people remember information or how to do things.

It’s also technically a different task for the brain to create a memory (this is sometimes called encoding) versus to retrieve it. So a person may have trouble remembering something either because they had difficulty encoding it in the first place, or because they are having difficulty promptly retrieving it.

How memory changes with aging: Many aspects of memory do decline with age, but not all:

  • Types of memory that decline:
    • Working memory
    • Episodic memory (especially for more recent events)
    • Prospective memory
  • Types of memory that stay stable
    • Procedural memory
    • Semantic long-term memory (may decline after the seventh decade)

Practical implications

  • Normal older adults are generally good at retaining information and memories that they’ve previously acquired, but they can take longer to retrieve them.
  • The ability to perform well-learned procedures (e.g. typing) remains stable. However, older adults often need more time and practice to learn a new procedure and create the procedural memory.
  • Declines in working memory mean that older adults may take longer or have more difficulty solving complex problems or weighing complicated decisions.
  • Declines in episodic memory may cause older adults to be a little more forgetful, especially for recent events.
  • Declines in prospective memory can make older adults more likely to forget something they were supposed to do.
  • It can help to give older adults more time and support to actually encode information into their memories. This requires processing time and also adequate attention (see below).
Attention

What it is: Attention is the ability to concentrate and focus on something specific, so that the related information can be processed. Key sub-types include:

  • Selective attention
    • This is the ability to focus on something specific despite the presence of other distracting and “irrelevant” information or stimuli.
    • Examples: spotting the relevant information on a cluttered website, following a conversation despite being in a busy environment.
  • Divided attention
    • Also known as “multi-tasking,” this is the ability to manage multiple tasks or streams of information at the same time.
    • Examples: reading a recipe while listening to music, driving while talking to someone.
  • Sustained attention
    • This is the ability to remain concentrated on something for an extended period of time.

How it changes with aging: Some aspects of attention do get worse with aging. Specifically:

  • Selective attention gets worse with aging.
  • Divided attention gets worse with aging.
  • Sustained attention does not tend to get worse with aging.

Practical implications:

  • As people get older, they are more easily distracted by noise, visual clutter, or a busy situation. It requires more effort for them to pay attention, especially when other things are going on.
  • People will also get worse at multi-tasking or switching between tasks, as they get older.
Language Skills

What they are: Language skills cover a variety of abilities related to understanding and producing both verbal language and written language.

How they change with aging: 

  • Vocabulary tends to remain stable with aging.
  • The comprehension of written language tends to remain stable.
  • Speech comprehension can decline with age, especially if the older person has any hearing difficulties or if the speech is rapid or distorted (because such speech requires more mental processing).
  • Language production does decline with age. Examples include:
    • More time is needed to find a word, and it becomes more common to pause in the middle of a sentence.
    • Spelling familiar words may become more difficult.
    • The ability to name a common object tends to decline after age 70.

Practical implications:

  • Normal older adults retain their vocabulary and ability to comprehend written language.
  • They may struggle with understanding rapid speech or distorted speech (such as that broadcast by a loudspeaker or synthetic voice).
  • Retrieving words often takes longer.
Executive Functioning

What it is: This refers to the mental skills that are needed for activities related to planning, organizing, problem-solving, abstract thinking, mental flexibility, and appropriate behavior. Executive function allows people to do things such as:

  • Solve new problems
  • Organize information and plan activities
  • Think abstractly
  • Use reason (especially when it comes to reasoning with unfamiliar material)
  • Adapt to new situations
  • Behave in socially appropriate ways
  • Make complex decisions

How it changes with aging: Executive function generally declines with age, especially after age 70.

Practical implications:

  • Normal older adults generally can perform the executive functioning tasks listed above, but they will not do them as well as when they were younger.
  • Older adults may struggle or take more time for more demanding executive functioning tasks, especially if they are tired or otherwise cognitively feeling taxed.
Emotional Processing

What it is: This refers to the ways one processes and regulates emotions, especially the negative ones. Examples include:

  • How quickly one moves out of a negative emotional state
  • How physically or emotionally reactive one is to interpersonal stressors
  • Mental strategies for minimizing negative stimuli, such as paying less attention to them

How it changes with aging: Older adults experience several changes that generally make them more positive and optimistic. These include:

  • Paying less attention to or withdrawing from negatively-simulating situations.
  • Paying more attention to positive things.
  • Becoming better at remembering positive things.

Practical implications:

  • Normal older adults develop a positivity bias, and will tend to pay more attention to situations that are emotionally positive.
  • Older adults have more difficulty remembering or paying attention to situations or problems that generate negative emotions.
    • This may be part of why it’s difficult for them to engage in planning for unpleasant future eventualities.
  • People tend to get happier and recover from negative emotions more quickly as they age.
  • Older adults may seem to avoid or deny certain issues that they find unpleasant.
Crystallized versus fluid intelligence in aging

When experts discuss normal cognitive changes in aging, they sometimes refer to crystallized intelligence versus fluid intelligence.

Basically, crystallized intelligence refers to everything one has learned over time: skills, abilities, knowledge. This increases as people get older, because crystallized intelligence is a function of experience, practice, and familiarity. This can lead to what some people refer to as “wisdom.”

Crystallized intelligence gets better or stays stable as people get older. This experience and wisdom does enable older adults to compensate for some of the decline in processing speed and other ability. It also means that older adults may perform better than younger people at those mental tasks that require depth of experience or knowledge.

Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, refers to abilities related to processing power, taking in new information, problem-solving with new or less familiar information, and reacting quickly.

Fluid intelligence is at its peak when we are younger adults, and then declines over time.

How to tell cognitive aging apart from more worrisome changes

It’s true that some very common brain problems, such as very early Alzheimer’s disease, can be very hard to tell apart from changes due to cognitive aging.

If you’re concerned that certain symptoms might be early Alzheimer’s, I recommend taking a look at the Alzheimer’s Association’s handy list of “10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s.”

What is nice about the Alzheimer’s Association’s resource is that for every early sign, they give an example of a normal change due to cognitive aging.

If you are wondering whether certain changes might qualify as “mild cognitive impairment” (MCI), then you’ll probably need to ask your health provider for more assistance in assessing memory and other cognitive domains.

In general, the diagnosis of MCI requires objective evidence of cognitive difficulties that is beyond what would be considered normal, but not bad enough to qualify as dementia. In other words, in MCI, cognitive testing should reveal that a person does worse than expected for his/her age and level of education. But the person should still be able to manage daily life tasks.

Otherwise, there are some signs and symptoms that are very unlikely to be due to cognitive aging alone. These include:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Personality changes
  • Becoming irritable very easily, or emotionally much more volatile than before
  • Depression
  • Lack of interest in activities, and/or inability to enjoy activities one used to enjoy.

If you notice any such symptoms, it’s important to not assume this is “normal aging.” Instead, I recommend learning more about these symptoms and then bringing them up to your usual health providers. Such changes in behavior can be caused by a variety of different health conditions, none of which should be ignored.

You can learn more about what can cause paranoia and other forms of “late-life psychosis” here: 6 Causes of Paranoia in Aging & What to Do.

I also explain what should be done during a primary care evaluation for cognitive impairment here: Cognitive Impairment in Aging: 10 Common Causes & 10 Things the Doctor Should Check.

Practical Takeaways & What You Can Do

In short, cognitive aging means that as we get older, our mental functions become less nimble and flexible, and many aspects of our memory get a little worse.

We also become more easily distracted by busy environments, and it takes more effort to work through complex problems and decisions.

Aging also tends to make people more positive, optimistic, trusting, emotionally resilient, and focused on good things. This often helps people feel happier as they get older.

But, this can make it harder for older adults to plan ahead to avoid problems, or to think through decisions that generate negative emotions. These changes to the aging brain can also make older adults more susceptible to deception and financial exploitation.

(This NYTimes story about an older man’s misread of a younger woman’s intentions seems to illustrate how optimism in late-life can be problematic.)

Can anything be done about cognitive aging?

It’s not really possible to prevent all cognitive aging. But there certainly are things that you can do! I would categorize them into two key categories:

1.Take steps to optimize and maintain your brain function.

These include a variety of sensible “brain-healthy” actions such as making sure to get enough sleep, exercising, not smoking, being careful about medications that affect brain function, and more. Here are some useful resources that provide a more detailed list of suggested actions:

2. Take sensible steps and precautions to compensate for cognitive aging changes. 

There’s no need to seriously limit oneself in later life, just because the brain isn’t quite as quick and nimble as it used to be.

That said, it’s probably a good idea to consider making a few sensible accommodations to the aging brain. These might include:

  • Allow older adults more time to think through complicated decisions.
    • Writing down key points to consider can also help, as this reduces the need to use mental working memory.
  • For more mentally demanding conversations and decisions, avoid noisy, busy, stimulating, or otherwise tiring environments.
    • An example of a mentally demanding conversation would be one in which adult children ask their aging parent to consider whether to move to a new living situation.
    • It’s also probably a good idea to avoid doing these late in the day, or when a person’s brain and body might be tired.
    • Use hearing aids or otherwise minimize hearing difficulties, for those many older adults who have some hearing loss. A good short-term solution can be to use a “PocketTalker“.
  • Remember that “negative” possibilities become harder for older adults to keep in mind. So it may take extra persistence and patience to discuss these.
    • Such “negative” possibilities include the possibility that one’s new romantic interest is after one’s money, that one might fall and break a hip at home, etc.
  • Simplify finances and take steps to reduce the risk of financial exploitation in later life.

I must say that after researching this article, I found myself thinking that we should all consider making an effort to deal with big complicated mental tasks (e.g. estate planning, advance care planning) sooner rather than later.

Because the longer one waits, the harder it becomes for the brain to think through complicated decisions.

For more on cognitive aging

Here are some of the resources that I found especially helpful, in researching this article:

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Here’s an upsetting situation that comes up a lot, and may have come up for you: is someone financially taking advantage of Mom or Dad?

It’s a pretty legitimate concern to have. To begin with, most people know that there are plenty of “scammers” out there, phoning or mailing older adults with deceptive information designed to hoodwink them out of some of their savings.

But there’s actually another form of exploitation that may be more common, and is often harder for families to address.

That would be exploitation perpetrated by a someone the older person knows and has a personal relationship with.

Sometimes the person suspected of exploitation is relatively new to the older person’s life, such as a new romantic interest, friend, or paid caregiver.

In other cases, family members become concerned that someone in the family – such as one of the older person’s children – is beginning to take financial advantage of things.

Exploitation in the context of personal relationships is often especially tricky for families to address. The older person may be quite attached to – or otherwise feel dependent on – the person that others perceive as suspicious or problematic. Or there may be concerns about stirring up family dramas and conflicts, by voicing concerns about a sibling or another relative.

People are often unsure of what exactly constitutes illegal activity, and what can be done if they are concerned about financial exploitation.

So in this article, I’ll cover the key things you should know, so that you can better evaluate and address a worrisome situation, should one arise.

Specifically, in this article I’ll explain:

  • Key terms to know, related to the financial exploitation of older adults
  • Some common examples of financial abuse
  • How to know if an older person is at risk, or otherwise particularly vulnerable to exploitation
  • What to do, if you suspect financial exploitation of an older adult
  • How to reduce the risk of being financially exploited

I’ll also share a list of additional resources and references at the end.

Key terms to know

The financial exploitation of older adults is also known as “financial abuse.” It is considered a type of elder abuse. It may occur simultaneously with other forms of abuse, such as neglect, emotional abuse, or physical abuse.

It’s important to know that although there is some federal involvement in addressing elder abuse, the definition of what exactly constitutes elder abuse or financial abuse is mainly determined by state law. (Find your relevant local statutes here: State Elder Abuse Statutes.)

Still, here are some useful general definitions:

Definition of Elder Abuse (per the CDC): “Elder abuse is an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.”

Definition of Financial Abuse or Exploitation (per the CDC): “The illegal, unauthorized, or improper use of an older individual’s resources by a caregiver or other person in a trusting relationship, for the benefit of someone other than the older individual.

This includes depriving an older person of rightful access to, information about, or use of, personal benefits, resources, belongings, or assets.

Examples include forgery, misuse or theft of money or possessions; use of coercion or deception to surrender finances or property; or improper use of guardianship or power of attorney.”

State laws include criminal law statues and civil law statues. Financial abuse is often addressed in both types of statutes. Criminal activity can be investigated by law enforcement, but illegal activity that falls under civil statutes generally isn’t.

The role of “undue influence”

Another term that is important to understand is “undue influence.” Basically, we are all influenced by people we have relationships with, and this can affect the way we choose to spend our money or share our assets.

But was this influence “undue,” or otherwise “improper”? Families or others sometimes worry that an older person has been inappropriately pressured or manipulated, or perhaps taken advantage of due to memory problems or a dependent situation.

Such “inappropriate” influence can be called “undue influence.” It’s an important concept to understand for two reasons.

First of all, it’s through such manipulative interpersonal dynamics that perpetrators are often able to commit financial abuse. Second, it’s a term that is often used in state laws related to elder abuse, or sometimes to statutes related to guardianship issues.

Here is a general definition, followed by California’s definition (which was just revised in 2014):

Definition of Undue Influence (per the American Bar Association & National Center on Law and Elder Rights): “When people use their role and power to exploit the trust, dependency, and fear of others. They use this power to deceptively gain control over the decision making of the second person.”

Definition of Undue Influence (per California State Law): “Excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.”

California’s statute goes on to specify four criteria which should be considered when determining whether a result was produced by undue influence. These include:

  • The victim’s vulnerability,
  • The factors that created authority or power for the influencer (e.g. being a necessary care provider),
  • The actions or tactics used by the influencer (which might include controlling access to others or to life necessities),
  • The “equity of the result” (e.g. economic consequences to the victim, divergence from the victim’s prior intent, etc).

To summarize: financial exploitation is a subset of elder abuse, and basically means inappropriately using an older person’s financial resources, for the benefit of someone other than the older person.

Such exploitation is often – but not always — facilitated by the perpetrator using “undue influence,” in which they create some kind of manipulative dynamic that allows them to take advantage of the older person.

Examples of financial abuse

Unfortunately, there many different ways to financially exploit an older adult. It’s not possible to list them all, so instead, I’ll share two common categories to keep in mind, along with some examples.

One way to think about financial abuse is to categorize perpetrators as “predators” versus “opportunists.”

“Predators” are individuals who purposefully seek out vulnerable older adults (or sometimes any adult), with the intent to defraud them or otherwise financially exploit them. Examples of this kind of financial abuse include:

  • Telemarketing or other forms of phone scams
  • Lottery scams
  • Homeowner/reverse mortgage scams
  • Email/phishing scams
  • Imposter scams, in which someone impersonates a grandchild or other relative and says they urgently need money wired to get out of trouble

The perpetrators of predatory financial abuse do sometimes work for several days — or longer — to establish a relationship with a vulnerable older person. A recent New Yorker article describes the way one 89-year old woman was persuaded to send large sums of money to a scammer, after he spent a week telephoning her and led her to believe he’d become a “friend.”

For more on common predatory scams affecting older adults, see Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors , from the National Council on Aging.

Whereas “predators” are purposefully out to defraud or exploit others, “opportunists” are those who end up financially exploiting an older person because…well, the opportunity arose, usually due to a relationship between the older person and the one who ends up exploiting the situation. Examples of this type of financial abuse might include:

  • Using an older parent’s ATM card without their permission
  • Forging or misusing an older person’s checks
  • Using the authority granted by a power of attorney to use the older person’s funds for one’s own needs
  • Pressuring an older parent into paying expenses for oneself or for someone else

Such “opportunistic” abuse can be committed by family members, paid in-home care providers, or even trusted people outside the home, such as financial advisors or spiritual advisors.

Financial abuse is also sometimes committed by newer friends or romantic interests, who may take advantage of a lonely older person’s generosity or interest in maintaining the relationship. Some such new romantic interests appear to be “predators” who actually seek out vulnerable targets, whereas others seem to be “opportunists.” (Of course, suspicion or resentment of an older person’s new relationship does not always mean that abuse or even manipulative situations are occurring.)

The difficulty, of course, with these examples is that plenty of common situations may fall into gray areas.

If an adult child is living with and perhaps assisting an older parent, and the parent seems appreciative and wants to give that child extra money, is that exploitation? Or just a natural expression of appreciation?

If an older woman gets re-married late in life and agrees to send large sums of money to her new husband’s adult child, is that exploitation? Or just her exercising her autonomy and right to give money to whomever she chooses?

If your older father has made your sister, who lives near him, a joint owner on his bank account, and your sister starts using money from that account to cover what she says are her expenses in assisting your father, is that legit?

It’s easy to see how different people may have different perspectives on such a situation. Although in some cases it may seem quite clear that what happened is financial abuse of an older person, other situations will be murkier and will be challenging to sort out.

How to know if someone is at risk

One of the biggest risk factors for financial abuse is having some form of cognitive impairment, whether mild or more substantial such as Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia.

Obviously, having problems with memory or other aspects of thinking makes one more vulnerable to deceit and misuse of one’s funds.

That said, it’s critical to realize that even “mentally sharp” older adults can easily fall prey to financial exploitation. That’s because plenty of factors other than memory play a role in making an older person vulnerable.

Here are some of the key factors that increase the risk of exploitation:

  • Loneliness. Lonely older adults more likely to be receptive to the overtures of a financial predator. They may also be more susceptible to manipulation by a family member or opportunist.
  • Isolation. When older adults are isolated, there may be fewer family or friends around to notice a suspicious situation and intervene. Isolated older adults are also often lonely.
  • Poor physical health and needing assistance with daily tasks. This is associated with being dependent on others, and such dependency can create the opportunity for exploitation.
  • Age-associated brain changes make people more trusting as they get older. Research has shown that as people age, they tend to become more optimistic and more trusting. This can help older adults become happier as they get older, but may well be part of why many of them can be financially exploited by scams.
  • Cognitive impairment. Again, this is not necessary for financial exploitation to happen, but it can certainly facilitate it. Also, if an older person previously completed a durable power of attorney (POA) document, the agent of an impaired person can easily abuse the POA and mismanage funds for their own benefit.

Although one might assume that it’s mainly wealthy older adults that get financially abused, one research study found that poverty was associated with financial exploitation too.

In short, financial exploitation can happen to almost any older adult, but being lonely, isolated, and/or dependent on others makes an older person especially vulnerable. Cognitive impairment also increases the risk of financial exploitation.

What to do, if you suspect the financial exploitation of an older adult

If you suspect that your older parent — or another older person — is being financially exploited, it’s important to take action.

According to the National Adult Protective Services Association, signs of potential financial abuse include:

  • Termination of vital utilities such as telephone, water, electricity / gas, or garbage
  • Unpaid bills and liabilities despite adequate income
  • Oversight of finances surrendered to others without explanation or consent
  • Transferring assets to new “friends” assisting with finances
  • Checks written to “Cash”
  • Does not understand his/her current finances, offers improbable explanations
  • Unexplained disappearance of cash, valuable objects, financial statements
  • Unexplained or unauthorized changes to wills or other estate documents
  • Giving-away money or spending promiscuously
  • Appearance of property liens or foreclosure notices

In general, any and all forms of elder abuse — including financial abuse — should be reported to your local Adult Protective Services (APS) office. (More on APS below.) You can use the Eldercare locator online to find your local APS office.

But there are also other actions you can consider taking. Exactly what to do will depend somewhat on the circumstances, the evidence you have found so far, the older person’s relationship with the perpetrator, and your relationship with the older person.

Here are some steps to consider taking:

  • Talk to the older person. Before telling an older person what to do or not do — or otherwise swooping in to help — it’s always a good idea to try to talk and get a sense of how they see the situation. This helps older adults feel heard and understood, which may then make it easier for them to accept your assistance, if it becomes necessary.
  • Gather more information or evidence as to what is occurring. To the best of your ability, try to make sure you have information to confirm your concerns or suspicions. Talk to other family members as well, if possible, so that the family can coordinate their efforts to investigate and intervene.
  • Contact the older person’s financial institution. They may or may not be able to divulge details to you, but new rules are making it easier for them to refuse or stop disbursements if there is suspicion of financial abuse. Congress also passed a “Senior Safe Act” in 2018, to empower financial professionals to act.
  • Contact your local Adult Protective Services (APS) office. APS offices are designed to help investigate allegations of abuse. For more on how APS helps and what happens when a report is made, see here: National Adult Protective Services Association: Get Help.
  • Contact law enforcement. This is especially important if you suspect fraud, theft, scams, or other criminal activity. Your local police department or sheriff’s office is generally a good place to start. Your local APS office should also be able to tell you which law enforcement agency to contact with your specific concerns.

The US Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Initiative also maintains a handy “Report Abuse” page, which includes an interactive “roadmap” questionnaire to help you identify specific authorities to which you can report financial abuse: Find Help or Report Abuse.

Most states also require individuals in certain positions to report suspected elder abuse, including financial exploitation. Health providers are often mandated reporters, and in some states, financial professionals are as well.

Of course, you are likely to be facing one or more of the following challenges:

  • The older person may resist your concern or attempts to intervene, feeling that you are infringing on her autonomy or implying that he isn’t capable of taking care of his finances.
    • Try to be as supportive and respectful as possible, as you express concerns. Use better communication approaches, such as using “I” messages and making sure the older person feels heard and understood.
  • If you don’t have an active power of attorney or another way to access the older person’s financial information, it can be hard to determine what is going on, and intervene to stop problematic disbursements.
    • You should still express your concerns to the older person’s bank or financial institution. As noted above, new rules are being implemented to enable financial professionals to intervene or at least place holds on disbursements, when financial exploitation is suspected.
    • In a few states, financial professionals are mandated to report suspected financial abuse. Check your local elder abuse statutes (or Google) to find out who is a mandated reporter in your state.
  • The suspected perpetrator may be restricting access to the older person, by refusing to let others talk to the older person on the phone, or visit.
    • If you really are concerned about financial exploitation or other elder abuse, you should call Adult Protective Services so that they can investigate. They will not disclose the name of the reporting party to the older person or suspected perpetrator.
    • If you’re not quite ready to call APS, try voicing your concerns to other individuals who may still have access to the older person, such a health provider or a clergy member. They might be able to encourage more communication to resolve conflicts. Your concern might also prompt them to look into a worrisome situation.
    • For more assistance, consider contacting a civil elder law attorney.

In short, if you suspect that an older person is being financially exploited, what’s most important is to do something.

Be as respectful as possible of the older person’s feelings and autonomy, but do try to find out more, try to delay any spending if possible, and report your concerns to the appropriate authorities.

In general, Adult Protective Services (APS) is the key social service agency to call, when you suspect financial abuse or any other kind of elder abuse. That said, APS offices are locally operated, so different agencies may take slightly different approaches to investigating concerns.

If you are not sure whether certain activity constitutes financial elder abuse, check your local state statutes, and/or consult an attorney.

How to reduce the risk of financial exploitation in aging

As is often the case, when it comes to financial exploitation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The challenge, however, is that taking steps to reduce the chance of exploitation often requires older adults to do two things that most find difficult.

  1. Realize that they are at risk. This is tough because most of us have trouble imagining a time when we might become vulnerable, gullible, or cognitively impaired. It can be distressing to think about, plus the known age-associated tendency towards optimism makes it even harder to imagine such situation.
  2. Consider giving up some privacy and autonomy. Basically, to reduce the risk of financial exploitation, you have to be willing to do things like letting others periodically review your financial activity, and under some circumstances, overriding what you are trying to do.

Understandably, many people are reluctant to give others the ability to review their decisions and intervene in their autonomy.

Still, such sacrifices are probably necessary, to significantly reduce one’s risk. And if done carefully and thoughtfully, it should be possible to still help an older person maintain some privacy, dignity, and autonomy.

Here are a few specific steps to consider, to reduce the risk of financial exploitation:

  • Simplify your finances, so that there are fewer accounts to oversee or regularly review.
  • Authorize each of your financial institutions to contact 1-2 trusted individuals (such as an adult child or one’s agent designated in a durable power of attorney), in case of suspicious financial activity.
  • Develop some method of allowing your trusted individuals to review your financial..
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Q: My 88-year old mother often complains of various aches and pains. What is the safest over-the-counter painkiller for her to take? Aren’t some of them bad for your liver and kidneys?

A: Frequent aches and pains are a common problem for older adults.

If your mother has been complaining, you’ll want to make sure she gets a careful evaluation from her doctor. After all, frequent pain can be the sign of an important underlying health problem that needs attention. You’re also more likely to help your mom reduce her pains if you can help her doctors identify the underlying causes of her pain.

That said, it’s a good idea to ask what over-the-counter analgesics are safest for older people.

That’s because improper use of OTC painkillers is actually a major cause of harm to older adults.

So let me tell you what OTC painkiller geriatricians usually consider the safest, and which very common group of painkillers you should look out for.

What’s the safest OTC painkiller for an older parent?

For most older adults, the safest OTC painkiller for daily or frequent use is acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol), provided you are careful to not exceed a total dose of 3,000mg per day.

Acetaminophen is usually called paracetamol outside the U.S.

It is processed by the liver and in high doses can cause serious — sometimes even life-threatening — liver injury. So if an older person has a history of alcohol abuse or chronic liver disease, then an even lower daily limit will be needed, and I would strongly advise you to talk to a doctor about what daily limit might be suitable.

The tricky thing with acetaminophen is that it’s actually included in lots of different over-the-counter medications (e.g. Nyquil, Theraflu) and prescription medications (e.g. Percocet). So people can easily end up taking more daily acetaminophen than they realize. This can indeed be dangerous; research suggests that 40% of acetaminophen overdoses cases are accidental.

But when taken at recommended doses, acetaminophen has surprisingly few side-effects and rarely harms older adults. Unlike non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, see below), it does not put older adults at risk of internal bleeding, and it seems to have minimal impacts on kidney function and cardiovascular risk.

Be careful or avoid this common class of painkillers

At the drugstore, the most common alternatives to acetaminophen are ibuprofen (brand names Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (brand names Aleve, Naprosyn, and Anaprox).

Both of these are part of a class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Many people are familiar with these medications. But in fact, older adults should be very careful before using NSAIDs often or regularly.

Unlike acetaminophen, which usually doesn’t become much riskier as people get older, NSAIDs have side-effects that are especially likely to cause harm as people get older. These include:

  • Increased risk of bleeding in the stomach, small bowel, or colon. Seniors who take daily aspirin or a blood-thinner are at especially high risk.
  • Problems with the stomach lining, which can cause stomach pain or even peptic ulcer disease.
  • Decreased kidney function. This can be especially problematic for those many older adults who have already experienced a chronic decline in kidney function.
  • Interference with high blood pressure medications.
  • Fluid retention and increased risk of heart failure.

Experts have estimated that NSAIDs cause 41,00 hospitalizations and 3,300 deaths among older adults every year.

Recent research has also suggested that NSAIDs cause a small but real increase in the risk of cardiovascular events (e.g. heart attacks and strokes).

Because of these well-known side-effects of NSAIDs in older adults, in 2009 the American Geriatrics Society recommended that older adults avoid using NSAIDS for the treatment of chronic persistent pain. Today, NSAIDs remain on the Beer’s List of medications that older adults should avoid or use with caution.

Despite this fact, NSAIDs are often bought by seniors at the drugstore. Perhaps even worse, NSAIDs are often prescribed to older adults by physicians, because the anti-inflammatory effect can provide relief from arthritis pain, gout, and other common health ailments.

(Commonly prescribed NSAIDs include indomethacin, diclofenac, sulindac, meloxicam, and celecoxib. These tend to be stronger than the NSAIDs available without a prescription. However, stronger NSAIDs are associated with higher risks of problems, unless they are used as a cream or gel, in which case the risks are much less.)

Now let me share a true story. Many years ago, a man in his 70s transferred to my patient panel. He had been taking a daily NSAID for several months, prescribed by the previous doctor, to treat his chronic shoulder arthritis.

I cautioned him about continuing this medication, explaining that it could cause serious internal bleeding. He seemed dubious, and said his previous doctor had never mentioned bleeding. He wanted to continue it. I decided to let it slide for the time being.

A few weeks later, he was hospitalized for internal bleeding from his stomach. Naturally, I felt terrible about it.

This is not to say that older adults should never use NSAIDs. Even in geriatrics, we sometimes conclude that the likely benefits seem to outweigh the likely risks. (This conclusion must be reached in partnership with the patient and family; only they can tell us how much that pain relief means to them, and how concerned they are about the risk of bleeding and other side-effects.) It’s also possible to reduce the risk of bleeding by having a patient take a medication to reduce stomach acid.

But far too many older adults are never informed of the risks associated with NSAIDs. And in the drugstore, they sometimes choose ibuprofen over acetaminophen, because they’ve heard that Tylenol can cause liver failure.

Yes, acetaminophen has risks as well. But every year, NSAIDs cause far more hospitalizations among older adults than acetaminophen does.

Aspirin: a special NSAID we no longer use for pain

Aspirin is another analgesic available over-the-counter.

It’s technically also a NSAID, but its chemical structure is a bit different from the other NSAIDs. This is what allows it to be effective in reducing strokes and heart attacks. It is also less likely to affect the kidneys than other NSAIDs are.

(For more on the risks and benefits of aspirin, see this MayoClinic.com article.)

Aspirin is no longer used as an analgesic by the medical community. But many older adults still reach for aspirin to treat their aches and pains, because they are used to thinking of it as a painkiller. Aspirin is also included in certain over-the-counter medications, such as Excedrin.

Taking a very occasional aspirin for a headache or other pain is not terribly risky for most aging adults. But using aspirin more often increases the risk of internal bleeding. So, I discourage my older patients from using aspirin for pain.

Tips on safer use of OTC painkillers

In short, the safest OTC painkiller for older adults is usually acetaminophen, provided you don’t exceed 3,000 mg per day.

If you have any concerns about liver function or alcohol use or otherwise want to err on the safer side, don’t exceed 2,000 mg per day, and seek medical input as soon as possible.

You should also be sure to bring up any chronic pain with your parent’s doctor. It’s important to get help identifying the underlying causes of the pain. The doctor can then help you develop a plan to manage the pain. And don’t forget to ask about non-drug treatments for pain; they are often safer for older adults, but busy doctors may not bring them up unless you ask.

Now if your older parent is taking acetaminophen often or every day, you’ll want to be sure you’ve accounted for all acetaminophen she might be taking. Remember, acetaminophen is often included in medications for cough and cold, and in prescription painkillers. So you need to look at the ingredients list for all medication of this type. Experts believe that half of acetaminophen overdoses are unintentional, and result from people either making mistakes with their doses or not realizing they are taking other medications containing acetaminophen.

Last but not least: be sure to avoid the “PM” version of any OTC painkiller. The “PM” part means a mild sedative has been included, and such drugs — usually diphenhydramine, which is the main ingredient in Benadryl — are anticholinergic and known to be bad for brain function. (See 7 Common Brain-Toxic Drugs Seniors Should Use With Caution for more about the risks of anticholinergic drugs.)

My own approach, when I do house calls, is to check the older person’s medicine cabinet. If I find any NSAIDs or over-the-counter anticholinergic medications (e.g. antihistamines, sleep aids, etc), I discuss them with my older patient and usually remove them from the house unless there’s a good reason to leave them.

If acetaminophen isn’t providing enough pain relief

If acetaminophen doesn’t provide enough relief for your mom’s pains, then it may be reasonable to consider over-the-counter (or sometimes prescription) NSAIDs, preferably for a limited period of time. But be sure to discuss the risks and alternatives with the doctor first, and be sure to discuss possible non-drug approaches to lessen pain.

By being informed and proactive, your family can help your mom get better care for her pain, while minimizing the risk of harm from medications.

Questions? Please post them below.

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Q: How can we get my older mother to drink more water? She is susceptible to urinary tract infections and seems to be often dehydrated no matter what we do. We were also wondering if coffee and tea are okay, or should they be avoided to reduce dehydration?

A: Dehydration is indeed an important problem for older adults. It can be common even when it’s not hot outside.

Helping a senior increase their fluid intake, as you’re trying to do, is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of dehydration.

Now how to actually do this? Studies — and practical experience — suggest that the best approaches include:

  1. Frequently offering the older person a drink, preferably on a schedule,
  2. Offering beverages the person seems to prefer,
  3. Not expecting older adults to drink a large quantity at a single sitting,
  4. Addressing any continence issues that might be making the person reluctant to drink often.

But your question brings up other issues in my mind. Has frequent dehydration been confirmed? (Dehydration can be hard to correctly diagnose.) Have you been able to measure how much your mother drinks, and how does this amount compare to the recommended daily fluid intake for seniors?

Also, is the real goal to prevent or manage frequent urinary infections, and is increasing her hydration likely to achieve this?

So let’s review the basics of dehydration in older adults, and what’s known about helping older adults stay hydrated. I will then share some additional tips on helping your mother maintain hydration.

The Basics of Dehydration What is dehydration and what causes it?

Dehydration means the body doesn’t have as much fluid within the cells and blood vessels as it should.

Normally, the body constantly gains fluid through what we eat and drink, and loses fluid through urination, sweating, and other bodily functions. But if we keep losing more fluid than we take in, we can become dehydrated.

If a person starts to become dehydrated, the body is designed to signal thirst to the brain. The kidneys are also supposed to start concentrating the urine, so that less water is lost that way.

Why are older adults at higher risk for dehydration?

Unfortunately, the body’s mechanisms meant to protect us from dehydration work less well as we age. Older adults have reduced thirst signals and also become less able to concentrate their urine.

Other factors that put older adults at risk include:

  • Chronic problems with urinary continence, which can make older adults reluctant to drink a lot of fluids
  • Memory problems, which can cause older adults to forget to drink often, or forget to ask others for something to drink
  • Mobility problems, which can make it harder for older adults to get something to drink
  • Living in nursing homes, because access to fluids often depends on the availability and attentiveness of staff
  • Swallowing difficulties

Dehydration can also be brought on by an acute illness or other event. Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and infection are all problems that can cause people to lose a lot of fluid and become dehydrated.

Last but not least, older adults are more likely to be taking medications that increase the risk of dehydration, such as diuretic medications, which are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure or heart failure.

A UK study of older adults in residential care found that 46% had impending or current dehydration, as diagnosed by blood tests.

How is dehydration diagnosed?

In older adults, the most accurate way to diagnose dehydration is through laboratory testing of the blood. Dehydration generally causes abnormal laboratory results such as:

  • Elevated plasma serum osmolality: this measurement relates to how concentrated certain particles are in the blood plasma
  • Elevated creatinine and blood urea nitrogen: these tests relate to kidney function
  • Electrolyte imbalances, such as abnormal levels of blood sodium
  • Low urine sodium concentration (unless the person is on diuretics)

(Doctors often sub-classify dehydration based on whether blood sodium levels are high, normal, or low.)

Dehydration can also cause increased concentration of the urine — this is measured as the “specific gravity” on a dipstick urine test. However, this is not an accurate way to test for dehydration in older adults, since we tend to lose the ability to concentrate urine as we get older. This was confirmed by a 2016 study, which found that the diagnostic accuracy of urine dehydration tests in older adults is “too low to be useful.

There are also a number of physical symptoms associated with dehydration. However, a 2015 study of older adults found that the presence or absence of dehydration symptoms is not an accurate way to diagnose dehydration.

Physical signs of dehydration may include:

  • dry mouth and/or dry skin in the armpit
  • high heartrate (usually over 100 beats per minute)
  • low systolic blood pressure
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • delirium (new or worse-than-usual confusion)
  • sunken eyes
  • less frequent urination
  • dark-colored urine

But as noted above: the presence or absence of these physical signs are not reliable ways to detect dehydration. Furthermore, the physical symptoms above can easily be caused by health problems other than dehydration.

So if you are concerned about clinically significant dehydration — or about the symptoms above — blood tests results may be needed. A medical evaluation for possible dehydration should also include an interview and a physical examination.

What are the consequences of dehydration?

The consequences depend on how severe the dehydration is, and perhaps also on how long the dehydration has been going on.

In the short-term, dehydration can cause the physical symptoms listed above. Especially in older adults, weakness and dizziness can provoke falls. And in people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, even mild dehydration can cause noticeable worsening in confusion or thinking skills.

Dehydration also often causes the kidneys to work less well, and in severe cases may even cause acute kidney failure.

The consequences of frequent mild dehydration — meaning dehydration that would show up as abnormal laboratory tests but otherwise doesn’t cause obvious symptoms — are less clear.

Chronic mild dehydration can make constipation worse. Otherwise, a 2012 review found that the only health problem that has been consistently associated with low daily water intake is kidney stones.

A 2013 review on fluid intake and urinary system diseases concluded that it’s plausible that dehydration increases the risk of urinary tract infections, but not definitely proven.

Speaking of urinary tract infections (UTIs), if you are concerned about frequent bacteria in the urine, you should make sure this reflects real UTIs and not simply a sign of the older person’s bladder being colonized with bacteria.

This is a very common condition known as asymptomatic bacteriuria, and incorrectly diagnosing this as a UTI can lead to pointless overtreatment with antibiotics. (More on this issue below, or see Q&A: Why Urine Bacteria Doesn’t Mean a UTI Needs Antibiotics.)

How is dehydration treated?

The treatment of dehydration depends on:

  • Whether the dehydration appears to be mild, moderate, or severe
  • What type of electrolyte imbalances (such as high/low levels of sodium and potassium) appear on laboratory testing
  • If known, the cause of the dehydration

Mild dehydration can usually be treated by having the person take more fluids by mouth. Generally, it’s best to have the person drink something with some electrolytes, such as a commercial rehydration solution, a sports drink, juice, or even bouillon. But in most cases, even drinking water or tea will help.

Moderate dehydration is often treated with intravenous hydration in urgent care, the emergency room, or even the hospital. Some nursing homes can also treat dehydration a subcutaneous infusion, which means providing fluid through a small IV needle placed into the skin of the belly or thigh. This is called hypodermoclysis, and this is actually safer and more comfortable for seniors than traditional IV hydration.

Severe dehydration may require additional intervention to support the kidneys, and sometimes even requires short-term dialysis.

How to prevent dehydration in older adults?

Experts generally recommend that older adults consume at least 1.7 liters of fluid per 24 hours. This corresponds to 57.5 fluid ounces, or 7.1 cups.

What are the best fluids to prevent dehydration?

I was unable to find research or guidelines clarifying which fluids are best to drink. This is probably because clinical research hasn’t compared different fluids to each other.

As to whether certain fluids are dehydrating: probably the main fluid to be concerned about in this respect is alcohol, which exerts a definite diuretic effect on people.

The effect of caffeine on causing people to lose excess water is debatable. Technically caffeine is a weak diuretic. But real-world studies suggest that people who are used to drinking coffee don’t experience much diuretic effect.

Now, caffeine may worsen overactive bladder symptoms, so there may be other reasons to be careful about fluids containing caffeine. But as best I can tell, coffee and tea are not proven to be particularly dehydrating in people who drink them regularly.

The safest approach would still be to drink decaffeinated drinks. But if an older person particularly loves her morning cup of (caffeinated) coffee, I’d say to consider accommodating her if at all possible.

How to help older adults to stay hydrated?

A 2015 review of nursing home interventions intended to reduce dehydration risk concluded that “the efficacy of many strategies remains unproven.” Still, here are some approaches that are reasonable to try:

  • Offer fluids often throughout the day; consider doing so on a schedule.
  • Offer smaller quantities of fluid more often; older adults may be reluctant to drink larger quantities less often.
  • Be sure to provide a beverage that is appealing to the older person.
  • See if the older person seems to prefer drinking through a straw.
  • Identify any continence concerns that may be making the older person reluctant to drink. Keeping a log of urination and incontinence episodes can help.
  • Consider a timed toileting approach, which means helping the older person get to the bathroom on a regular schedule. This can be very helpful for seniors with memory problems or mobility difficulties.
  • Track your efforts in a journal. You’ll want to track how much the person is drinking; be sure to note when you try something new to improve fluid intake.
  • Offer extra fluids when it’s hot, or when the person is ill.
Practical tips for family caregivers

Let’s now return to the issues brought up in the question.

Family caregivers are often concerned about whether an older person is drinking enough. Since dehydration is indeed very common among older adults, this concern if very important.

However, before expending a lot of energy trying to get your mother to drink more, I would encourage you to consider these four suggestions:

1.Measure how much your mother is actually drinking most days.

This can require a little extra effort. But it’s very helpful to get at least an estimate of how much the person drinks. This can confirm a family’s — or doctor’s — hunch that the person isn’t taking in enough fluid, and can help the care team figure out how much more fluid is required.

Again, the recommendation for older adults is to consume at least 1.7 liters/day, which corresponds to at least 57.5 fluid ounces. In the US, where a measuring cup = 8 ounces, this is equivalent to 7.1 cups/day.

Keep a journal to record how much fluid your older parent is drinking. It’s generally important to track anything you want to improve.

2. Confirm that your mother is, in fact, often dehydrated.

As noted above in the section on diagnosing dehydration: physical symptoms and urine tests are not enough to either diagnose dehydration or rule it out.

Instead, consider these two approaches to confirming clinical dehydration. One is to see if her energy and mental state perk up when she drinks more. The other is to talk to the doctor and request blood tests to confirm dehydration.

Now, you don’t necessarily want to request blood tests every time you suspect mild dehydration. But especially if your mother’s dehydration has never been confirmed by a serum osmolality test, it would probably be useful to do this at least once.

3. If frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a concern, learn about asymptomatic bacteriuria and try to determine whether these are real UTIs versus a colonized bladder.

Sometimes I’ve seen families hellbent on increasing hydration or taking other measures, because they are concerned about repeated or persisting urinary tract infections (UTIs).

But UTIs are a bit like dehydration. A UTI is a common problem in seniors and is potentially very serious. But it’s also easily misdiagnosed, even by professionals.

Sometimes, when an older person keeps being diagnosed with a UTI repeatedly, the problem is actually that the older person has asymptomatic bacteriuria. This is a very common condition in which an older person’s bladder becomes colonized with bacteria. It probably happens because people’s immune systems get weaker as they age.

So how is this different from a UTI? Both conditions will cause a positive urine culture, meaning that bacteria is in the urine. The main difference is that in asymptomatic bacteriuria, the older person doesn’t experience pain, inflammation, increased confusion, or other symptoms of infection.

In a young person, bacteria in the urine is very uncommon and almost always corresponds to a clinically significant infection. But in an older person, bacteria in the urine is common.

So you cannot diagnose a UTI in an older person just on the basis of a positive urine culture. Instead, the family and clinician must note other signs of infection, such as pain or delirium.

Families are often surprised to learn that clinical trials have repeatedly found that it is not helpful to treat asymptomatic bacteriuria, but it’s true. In fact, a 2015 study found that treating asymptomatic bacteriuria with antibiotics increased the likelihood of later having a real UTI, and that the real UTI was more likely to be antibiotic-resistant.

For more on this topic, see Q&A: Why Urine Bacteria Doesn’t Mean a UTI Needs Antibiotics.

4. Pay attention to figure out which fluids your mother prefers to drink and try scheduling frequent small drinks.

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for paying close attention, keeping track of your observations, and doing some trial and error to figure out what seems to improve things.

No doctor has a magic formula to get seniors to drink more. So identify the drinks your mother prefers, start tracking how much she drinks, and then start experimenting to figure out what works.

Usually, a combination of the following three approaches will improve fluid intake:

  • Offer a beverage the person likes,
  • Offer small-to-moderate quantities of the beverage on schedule,
  • Address continence issues.

Do you have any additional questions regarding the prevention of dehydration in older adults?

Post them below and I’ll see how I can help.

The post Q&A: How to Prevent, Detect, & Treat Dehydration in Aging Adults appeared first on Better Health While Aging.

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