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Heading Home for the Holidays?


Be sure to look for these 5 signs that may indicate your parents need help.


Meg Pemberton MHA BSN RN

Aging Life Care and Geriatric Care Manager


With the holiday fast approaching, now is a good time to plan a visit with your aging parents. If you are headed home for the holidays, you will have the perfect opportunity to see how they are really doing. However, like most hosts, your parents will be sure to have prepared well for their guests, even if they are family. You may have to dig below the surface to get a sense of how your parents are managing. How is their health? How are they coping?


Here are five signs, clues if you will, to look for when you visit with your parents.


Start with a Big Hug


Yes, a hug! There is much we can learn from a warm hug. Does mom feel the same? Has she lost weight? As our parents age their eating habits may change. Often their sense of taste is altered by medications, and they stop eating what does not taste as it once did. Loneliness and depression can lead to decreased appetite and weight loss. This may be a particular problem for a widowed parent. Check the fridge and cupboards. Are they well-stocked?


On the flip side, have either of your parents gained weight? Reduced finances can lead to a poor diet rich in cheaper, less healthy foods. Elderly diabetics struggling with memory may lose track of when they last ate thus eating more than normal.


Does dad still smell of his favorite aftershave? Is he shaving? Are your parents dressing appropriately? Changes in grooming habits can be a sign of memory issues. Are their clothes clean? This can also be an indicator of physical issues impacting their ability to care for themselves easily. After the hug watch for changes in their gait. Are they struggling with their mobility? Observe how they manage their daily activities.


Look for Dirt and Dust


No need to get out a white glove but do take a close look. Are they cleaning the house? Taking out the trash? If your mom has always kept a spotless house and now she isn’t this could be a sign she needs help. She may no longer be able to physically keep up. My mother-in-law always kept a tidy home. As an elderly widow, she became less so particularly as her health deteriorated. With decreased activity and/or disease processes your parents may have less strength to run the vacuum, do the laundry, and take the trash out.


Check the Mailbox


Is mail piling up in the box? If the mailbox is at the end of the driveway perhaps, they are struggling to get to it. Walk with them to the mailbox to see how they manage the activity. Is the mail sitting in the house unopened? If so, how much and for how long? Are the bills being paid? It might be time to be nosy and check to see if your parents are struggling with finances. This could be due to forgetfulness or true financial distress.


If you are concerned about your parent’s finances, talk to them about it. Is their income sufficient for their needs? Be sure to ask if anyone is helping them. For example, is a neighbor or another family member helping by writing checks for your parents? Who has access to their banking information and accounts? Unfortunately, elder abuse does include financial abuse. Now is a good time to discuss what help they may need. It may be time to discuss durable power of attorney, medical power of attorney, end-of-life wishes, and estate planning if not already addressed.


Take a Drive


Let your mom or dad take you out for a spin in their car (let them drive). How are they managing? When my dad thought it was okay to turn left on a red-light mom knew it was time to hide the car keys from him. It is best to get ahead of this one early. Look for signs of distracted driving. How is their reaction time? Your parents will be reluctant to give up driving. It is a significant loss of their independence. Take a good look at the car too. Any dents or other signs of damage? Is the inspection up to date?


Say Hello to the Neighbors


Visiting with your parent’s neighbors can give you further insight into how they are managing day-to-day. Neighbors may have observations to share though they may have been reluctant to reach out to do so. Make sure they have your contact information. Ask if your parents have been socializing with them particularly if they have in the past. Do they see your parents coming and going? Have your parents called upon them for assistance of any kind?


Bring this Present


The present you can give this season is your presence. Not just be there but be present. Emily Gurnon at Next Avenue has some advice regarding being present (https://www.nextavenue.org/how-to-visit-your-aging-parent-the-right-way/). Too often in our daily lives, we rush to complete our tasks. Life is busy. Slow down long enough to really see and hear your parents. They may tell you all is well, and on the surface, it may seem as though it is. That is why it is so important to be observant and look for clues. Here are a few more clues:

  • Unexplained bruises or injuries. Have they fallen?

  • Increased forgetfulness. Did they recall the details of your visit? Forget a doctor appointment?

  • Moodiness, grumpiness, and grouchiness. Are they anxious or depressed?

  • Sleeping patterns. Are they sleeping too long and napping often? This can also be a sign of depression.

  • Medications. How many are they taking? Are they taking them correctly? Missing any doses? Polypharmacy in the elderly can lead to falls, unintentional overdoses, severe interactions between drugs, and even death.

When the Clues Tell you Help is Needed


Your parents' need for assistance may vary from housekeeping to personal care to needing medication reminders. It may be time to consider changes to living arrangements. Checking with your parent’s primary care physician is a good idea. They can help with appropriate medical assessments. If your parent needs a companion or personal care, a Geriatric Care Manager or Aging Life Care Manager help you identify the best fit be it in-home care or an assisted living situation. If your journey is just beginning, meeting with an Aging Life Care Manager is a good place to start.