You and Your Elderly Parent: Know the Difference Between Temporary Decline and Long-Term Deterioration

A common problem for adult children of aging parents is coming to understand the difference between temporary decline and long-term deterioration. Through this article we provide you guidance to assist you in understanding whether or not your parent has an issue that causes a temporary decline in their physical or emotional health or whether your parent is suffering from a condition that is causing long-term and likely permanent deterioration.

Definitions of Temporary Decline Versus Long-Term Deterioration 

Legally, definitions have been established that cover both a temporary decline as well as a long-term disability. Temporary decline is defined as:

A temporary decline or disability is a type of decline of disability that only affects an individual for a short period of time. The condition may last for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. Eventually the individual who is suffering from this condition will recover.

On the other hand, a long-term deterioration is defined as:

Long-term deterioration or a permanent disability is a type of physical or mental deterioration or disability that an individual is not expected to recover from any time in the future. A person will likely live with this deterioration or disability for the remainder of his or her life. Long-term deterioration permanent or disability can result from a number of different circumstances or situations. These include a progressive disease, illness, or condition. It could also stem for an accident resulting in a significant injury (like a fall that results in a broken hip).  

Determining Temporary Versus Long-Term Deterioration

Absent the involvement of an experienced healthcare professional, trying to ascertain whether an elderly parent is suffering from a temporary or long-term deterioration becomes an ineffective guessing game. Simply put, neither you nor your parent are really in any position to make an absolute and accurate diagnosis of what is going in regard to even a noticeable deterioration.

For this reason, the involvement of an appropriate healthcare professional in the process of making a determination as to what is going on is necessary – vital, in fact. If you believe that there is something wrong with your parent that may represent some type of deterioration – physical or mental, temporary or long-term – you need to initiate a five-phase process:

  • Seek a diagnosis from a physician
  • Commence prescribed course of treatment
  • Learn about the illness or condition
  • Plan ahead
  • Consider psychological and emotional factors 

Seek Diagnosis From a Physician

If your parent has a primary care physician, the first phase of the process of identifying and then addressing a potential temporary or long-term deterioration is to schedule an appointment with that medical professional. A primary care physician may be in a position to diagnosis a condition on his or her own and without additional consultation. While that certainly may be able to occur, it is more likely that some additional work will need to be done.

  • A primary care physician is likely to order additional testing. This may come in the form of lab testing or through the use of diagnostic medical equipment (or both).
  • A primary care physician might refer your parent to a specialist. 
  • Bear in mind that your parent can seek a “second opinion” to confirm the determinations made by a primary care physician or even a specialist to whom a referral has been made.

It is at this juncture, following the completion of testing and so forth, that a diagnosis can be made. This will include a basic determination as to whether the condition is transitory, treatable, or temporary or whether it is some type of long-term and permanent decline or deterioration. 

Commence Prescribed Course of Treatment

Once a determination has been made in regard to the cause of the deterioration, a course of treatment will be prescribed. There can be some instances in which there is no real course of active treatment for something or another which is causing a decline in your parent’s physical or mental health. With that said, there may some type of palliative care that might be advisable. There also might be some practices your parent can employ to slow the progression of a certain type of deterioration. 

Learn About the Illness or Condition

It behooves you and your parent to learn about the illness or condition diagnoses, be it a temporary or long-term decline. Your parent’s primary care physician as well as any specialist involved in the diagnosis and treatment process should be able to provide you with some essential educational or informational materials about the illness or condition that is driving a decline.

If you are like many people, you may be inclined to “check out what the internet has to say about an illness or condition.” Certainly, there may be some useful information available to you and your parent online. With that said, there will also be a tremendous amount of poor “information” and even misinformation plastered about the web. 

If you decide to utilize the internet as a learning resource, rely on reputable medical sites to obtain information. Examples of medical websites that are doing a solid job of providing the general public with useful information about healthcare matters include:

  • Mayo Clinic 
  • National Institutes of Health
  • John Hopkins University School of Medicine
  • Harvard University Medical School
  • WebMD

A wise course is to consider websites operated by medical schools at reputable universities or medical centers. 

Plan Ahead

Particularly if you parent is dealing with a condition that sets him or her on a course of long-term decline, you should begin the process of partnering with your mother or father to plan ahead. For example, you should begin an ongoing discussion of the type of assistance your parent might require in the future. Possibilities might include:

  • In-home care and assisted
  • Assisted living
  • Nursing home
  • Memory center 

To coin a cliché – Rome wasn’t built in a day. Provided you and your parent are proactive, you likely will have the opportunity to discuss the future and to do future planning over the course of a more extended period of time. In other words, you don’t need to rush solutions and you can contemplate what the next step is likely to be as a condition progresses. 

Consider Psychological or Emotional Factors

Before diving into this section of the article, your parent may be facing a psychological type of decline. Thus, a consideration of psychological factors will be a part of the overall response. Nonetheless, there will be an emotional component as well that necessitates consideration. Moreover, if the diagnosis is one of a physical condition, there can be psychological and emotional elements, factors, or developments as well.

Depression and anxiety are the two major psychological and emotional fallouts associated with negative news about one’s physical health. This particularly is the case if the diagnosis represents a condition that will set an older parent on the course for long-term decline. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both in situations involving long-term decline include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
  • Feeling irritable, easily frustrated‚ or restless
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment
  • Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide

The National Institute of Mental Health advises:

Research suggests that people who have depression and another medical illness tend to have more severe symptoms of both illnesses. They may have more difficulty adapting to their medical condition, and they may have higher medical costs than those who do not have both depression and a medical illness. Symptoms of depression may continue even as a person’s physical health improves.

A collaborative care approach that includes both mental and physical health care can improve overall health. Research has shown that treating depression and chronic illness together can help people better manage both their depression and their chronic disease.