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Are your parents ageing gracefully?

"Ageing gracefully is something to strive for, both for ourselves and our parents. As we get older, our risk of developing disease increases so it is more important than ever to live a healthy life. It is also important that as our parents age we support them in managing their health, wellbeing and safety if necessary. There are signs we can look for to gauge whether they need assistance, and agencies that can support carers and parents." Dr Christine Bennett, Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia

Health issues to watch for in older people

What happens when we age? 

As our parents get older, it's more important than ever to ensure they're maintaining their health and wellbeing. Regardless of how long we live, time takes a toll on the body and sometimes the mind.

Ageing increases the risk of some diseases and conditions. That's why it's important to ensure that your parents manage their health and wellbeing in the later stages of their lives.

Your parents looked after you for many years of your life, and now that they're getting older, it's time to return the favour. Healthy ageing means staying active, eating well, getting plenty of sleep, staying socially active and managing any medical conditions. You can help your parents stay happy and healthy by asking a few simple questions.

1. Have they lost weight?

Look out for any unusual changes in weight. Weight loss could indicate a significant health problem in older people, such as:1

  • cancer
  • dementia
  • depression
  • heart failure
  • malnutrition.

Any of these conditions can lead to weight loss but for different reasons.1 If your parents start looking thin and frail, it might be worth talking to them about your concerns and encouraging them to see a doctor.

Even if they aren't losing weight, many older people become fixed in their eating habits, often eating the same thing each day. This can lead to malnutrition as some essential nutrients may be missing. Supplements may be required. Even overweight or obese people can be malnourished from eating the wrong foods.

So whether or not they're losing weight, if you notice that one of your parents seems to eat the same or similar things most meals, ask them to consider supplementation or share your concerns with their GP. Physical impairments, lack of energy or trouble grasping cooking implements may make it difficult for them to cook for themselves. Talk to your parents about your concerns to find ways to make cooking easier.

2. Are they safe in their home?

Take a look around your parents' home for signs that they are having trouble maintaining it. Are the lights working? Is the heat on? Has the well-maintained yard become overgrown and wild? Are there dirty dishes in the sink? Is the home cluttered with piles of newspapers and magazines?

Don't be afraid to ask questions about safety. Are your parents having trouble navigating stairs? Have they mentioned any recent falls or injuries? Take note of any changes in their hearing and vision. Difficulty reading directions on prescription medications or difficulty hearing a doctor's advice or instructions could lead to dosage and dosing mistakes or more serious consequences.

There's strong evidence that poor vision, muscle weakness and poor nutrition can lead to falls and, often, broken bones.2 Make sure that your parents' eyesight is checked regularly, and encourage them to take part in regular exercise and weight-bearing activities to improve their strength.

Any big changes in the way your parents do things around the house could provide clues to their health. Physical impairments may make it difficult for your parents to maintain their house.

If you think there may be some potential safety issues, point them out to your parents next time you visit them, and come up with a plan together to fix these problems.

3. Are they taking care of themselves?

Pay attention to your parents' appearance and whether they're keeping up with their usual personal hygiene routines. Are your parents' clothes clean? Failure to keep up with daily routines such as bathing and grooming could be a sign of health problems. Maybe your parents could benefit from assisted care. Many people can maintain themselves comfortably in their own homes with only a few hours of the right type of assistance each week.

4. Are they in good spirits?

A big change in your parents' mood or outlook can be a sign that they're depressed or worried about some other health concern. Ask your parents regularly how they're feeling. Do they seem worried or withdrawn?

Talk to your parents about their activities. Are they still connecting with friends? Do they have hobbies? Are they involved in social groups or clubs? If they're religious, do they attend services regularly? Encourage them to be more socially active and do things they enjoy, including joining local clubs and activities groups, as social interaction can help them stay in good spirits.

Talk to your parents if you think they seem down or depressed. Encourage them to see their GP and talk about their feelings. Their GP can assess whether they may be suffering from a mental condition such as depression, and suggest appropriate treatment and support.

5. Are they having difficulty getting around?

If your parents have health conditions that make it difficult to get around, this may impact on their ability to care for themselves. For instance, your parents may experience muscle weakness, joint problems and other age-related changes that make it difficult to move around.

Pay attention to how your parents are walking. Are they reluctant or unable to walk usual distances? Is knee or hip arthritis making it difficult to get around the house? Do they need a cane or walker? Talk to them about ways to make getting around easier. If you aren't sure how to create a safe home environment for your parents, speak with an occupational therapist or your parents' GP for advice.

Falls can cause major injuries and even death in older adults. If your parents are at risk of falling, you can help prevent this happening by making their home safer, helping them stay active and ensuring their eyesight is as good as it can be.

What to do if you have concerns about your ageing parents 

Talk with your parents if you have any concerns about their health and safety. Knowing that you're concerned about their health may be all the motivation your parents need to see their doctor. Even so, many people don't like to acknowledge their frailty or the onset of medical conditions. Some parents may need a little more encouragement, so let them know that you care about them and that you're worried.

Consider including other people who care about your parents in the conversation, such as a relative or close friend. Together you can come up with solutions and find out whether more needs to be done, such as getting some home help.

If your parents aren't willing to listen to your concerns, talk to their GP for guidance. While they can't discuss confidential information with you, they may be able to talk to your parents or assess their health and wellbeing on their next visit.

Further information 

Aged Care Australia: information on where to go for home assessments, carers and State Government agencies that provide support. Also lists information on where to go for help for people with special needs.

Department of Veterans' Affairs: information on health and wellbeing, rehabilitation, and support entitlements for veterans, members or ex-members of the Australian Defence Force.


  1. University of Western Sydney. Decision-making frameworks in advanced dementia: Links to improved care project. 2011. [Cited 2011 June 22] Available from:
  2. Department of Veterans' Affairs. HomeFront Guide to Preventing Falls for Older People. 2006. [Cited 2011 June 22] Available from:

Last published: 30 July 2011

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.