Understanding Senior Self-Neglect

If you are the son or daughter of an aging parent, you intuitively are already in tune with the various needs of your aging parent. You are also aware of many things that can potentially put your senior mother or father at risk. What you may not be particularly familiar with is senior self-neglect. In this article, we provide you with an introduction to and overview of senior self-neglect.

What is Senior Self-Neglect?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the basic definition of senior self-neglect (also known as elder self-neglect) is:

The behavior of an elderly person that threatens his or her health or safety generally manifests itself by failure to provide himself or herself with adequate food, water, clothing, shelter, personal hygiene, medication (when indicated), and safety precautions.

Impact of Senior Self-Neglect

Elder self-neglect is a more prevalent problem than most people recognize. In fact, most research points to self-neglect being the most common form of elder abuse—a confusing statement since this form of mistreatment doesn’t involve other people at all. Because self-neglect often occurs inside private homes and among isolated seniors, it’s likely that reports don’t fully represent the magnitude of this issue.

According to a 2009 study, senior self-neglect is not only harmful to a senior’s health and well-being but also has the potential to be life-threatening. The study in question used data collected from approximately 10,000 seniors over a three-to-four-year period. This data underscored the fact that senior self-neglect was associated with a significant increase in premature death.

The heightened mortality risk was most prominent in the year after senior self-neglect was reported to or confirmed by social services agencies, such as Adult Protective Services. Additional research has found that self-neglect is also associated with an increased risk for subsequent elder abuse.

Signs of Senior Self-Neglect

Signs of senior self-neglect are unique to the person involved. With that said, there are some signs of senior self-neglect that are more commonly seen. In most instances, a senior will exhibit multiple signs, that include:

  • Confusion
  • Inability to accomplish activities of daily living (ADLs)
  • Loss of ability to complete instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs)
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Excessive drinking or drug use
  • Frequent falls
  • Signs of poor hygiene in both self-care and physical surroundings
  • Signs of poor physical health, such as weight loss, dehydration, poor medication adherence, etc.
  • Indicators that a senior is not getting care for problems with eyesight, hearing, dental issues, incontinence, etc.
  • Unpaid bills
  • Utility disconnects

Helping a Senior Who Self-Neglects

A three-phase strategy has been demonstrated effective in assisting seniors who self-neglect. These three phases of this strategy are:

  1. Talk to the person
  2. Help the person accept assistance from others
  3. Help the person access necessary services

Talk to the Person

Broaching the subject of senior self-neglect can be challenging. In order for this discussion to be beneficial, you should consider employing these tips:

  • Be gentle
  • Respect the person
  • Remain calm, caring, and supportive
  • Use facts, not emotions
  • Point out items, conditions, or situations that are unsafe
  • Check if the pets have been neglected
  • Never be critical or judgmental

Help the Person Accept Assistance from Others

When a senior exhibits signs of self-neglect, one effective solution may be getting that person to accept assistance from others. This might be done on a more informal basis involving family members. For example, if one of the signs that your parent isn’t engaging in appropriate self-care is a messy house, marshal some family members and give it a good cleaning.

The reality is that when a senior is exhibiting signs of self-neglect, avoiding blowing the situation out of proportion is not advisable and apt to be counterproductive. Giving your parent a bit of help may be enough to get your mother or father on a solid course towards engaging in appropriate self-care in the future.

Help the Person Access Necessary Services

If it appears that your parent is suffering from senior self-neglect, some underlying reasons may make providing appropriate care challenging. Using the example of keeping the house tidy as an example, perhaps cleaning the home has become a challenging task. This can occur even as an outgrowth of the normal aging process. If your parent has some other types of medical conditions, appropriate self-care might become more challenging.

There are some options available to your aging parent that can make certain aspects of self-care easier to undertake. First, you might consider encouraging your senior parent to engage the services of an in-home care aide. An in-home care aide can assist with a variety of tasks that include:

  • Housekeeping
  • Laundry
  • Meal preparation

If your parent has difficulties with other activities of daily living like grooming and dressing, a home care aide can also assist in this regard.

Suppose you discover multiple reasons why your parent may be exhibiting senior self-neglect. In that case, you might want to begin a discussion with your mother or father about possibly considering moving to an assisted living community at some point in time in the not-too-distant future. Assisted living is designed to provide an older individual with the following:

  • Comfortable living quarters in the form of an apartment or room
  • Supportive assistance as needed that includes help with different activities of daily living
  • Opportunities to participate in what often is a wide range of programming
  • Chance to socialize with other residents and develop meaningful relationships

Unless your parent is having cognitive issues that have reached the point that his or her decision-making abilities are impaired, the course of action that your parent takes ultimately is their decision. While it’s appropriate to provide your mother or father with suggestions about what to do regarding self-neglect and to encourage your parent to take certain steps, pressuring or forcing an otherwise competent parent is not acceptable.