The leaves have fallen. There’s a whisper of snow in the air. Before you know it, you (with family in tow) will head “home” for the holidays! Soon, you’re greeted by your parents’ warm hugs and cheerful smiles. It’s been too long since you’ve seen them – maybe an entire year has passed.
Though joyous the occasion, you wonder if things will be different this time – if your parents have changed. Will they be more forgetful, clumsy or frail? Changes may be subtle and progress slowly. But, they’ll seem more evident when you haven’t seen your folks in a while.
So, on this holiday visit, pay close attention to your parents’ daily routines and behaviors. You may discover they have needs you’ll want to address.
Appearance. A change in grooming habits could hint a person can’t care for himself. Is Dad’s attire too relaxed lately? Instead of the pressed trousers and golf shirts he wore for years, is he sporting shabby sweatpants and stained t-shirts?
Or, maybe Mom’s salon visits have gone from every three months to annually. And, she dons the same outfit each morning (despite having a closet full of clothes), with no particular care taken to look put-together.
Bruising or injuries. Unexplained bruising or injuries can suggest a parent has balance issues and may have fallen. Dizziness, vertigo and shuffling steps are all-too-common concerns with elderly parents. And, people taking certain medications (like blood thinners) can bruise or bleed easily after bumping into furniture or nicking a finger while slicing onions.
Hygiene. Unpleasant body odor and greasy hair are signs that daily showers or baths have slacked off – perhaps because it’s too exhausting (physically or mentally).
Mobility. Declining mobility is a big indicator that your folks may need help with everyday care. Arthritis and/or excess weight can make it difficult to get up from a chair or climb the stairs. So, when balance, walking and maneuvering about the house becomes problematic (to the point that they hardly do so), it’s time to step in.
Poor diet. Lack of proper nutrition can cause unintended weight loss and malnutrition in elderly people. If your folks can’t get to the store to buy nutritious foods – and then prepare meals – their health can deteriorate quickly. And, some elderly people lose their sense of taste and smell, so they’re simply not interested in eating.
Also, dehydration becomes a real danger for people who can’t easily access water in their home. And, less mobile individuals might not drink enough for fear of having to use the bathroom frequently.
Forgetfulness. Everyone forgets things. But if you suspect your parent’s short-term memory is failing, arrange a professional evaluation. Drawing a blank on a best friend’s name, forgetting to take medications, or leaving pots and pans on the stove are common signs – and some can have serious consequences. Also, keep an eye on whether your parent is missing appointments (medical or social) or not paying bills on time. He or she could be exhibiting symptoms more serious than mild inattention or absentmindedness.
Changes in mood. Obvious mood swings or changes in personality can be cause for worry. If your typically positive, happy-go-lucky parent seems unusually somber or irritated, take note. Single parents, especially, are vulnerable to feelings of isolation and depression.
Confusion. Hesitation or frustration is common in a parent who can’t seem to successfully accomplish once-familiar tasks (like tying a shoelace or following a recipe). Check with friends and neighbors and ask if they’ve observed any changes in your folks. Ask if they’re composed and articulate when engaged in conversation. And, whether they seem oriented to their surroundings and dress appropriately for the weather.
Loss of interest. Losing interest in getting out or doing things they used to enjoy (hobbies, church, meeting with friends) could be symptomatic of depression or loneliness. Sedentary people, especially, who’ve lost the will to participate in favorite activities may be on a steep decline. They need support and encouragement to get back on track.
Changes Around the House
Dirty or cluttered house. Does it look like your parent hasn’t cleaned the house since your last visit? Is there a lingering smell of urine? If the kitchen or bathrooms are filthy or garbage is piling up, your folks probably can’t keep up with household chores and routine maintenance.
Unsanitary, neglected living conditions invite unwelcome critters (think bugs and mice) and hazardous germs. And elderly people are particularly susceptible to contracting serious illnesses or disease from a soiled environment.
Unopened mail. Watch for mail that’s piling up on the dining table or spilling out of the mailbox. It can be overwhelming for elderly parents to deal with bills, and puzzling to differentiate between junk mail and correspondence they need to attend to. They might need assistance with managing finances and responding to important letters.
Unused food. Finding a lot of spoiled food in the fridge could mean your parent lacks the ability to cook meals for herself. Also, look for freezer and pantry items that never get touched. Your parent’s concept of time – and expiration dates – may be impaired.
Vehicle scratches and dents. If your parents still drive, it’s worth checking out the car for scratches and dents. For fear of losing a major aspect of their independence, they might not share their minor traffic “incidents.” Poor eyesight and slow reflexes are primary causes of age-related accidents.
When to Seek Help
It can be heartbreaking, even frightening, to witness your parents reach the stage where they truly need help. For all the years you’ve known them – as caregivers, teachers, career and parental advisors – they’ve been your rock. It takes strength, understanding and admission (on both sides) that they need help – be it physically, mentally, or both.
If and when the time comes, discuss your concerns with your parents. And, together, make appropriate choices for their care. Understand that resistance is likely for parents struggling to maintain their independence. But, take action to safeguard your parents’ health and ensure their happiness and well-being.
Consider the many options available that service the specifics needs of stay-at-home parents: adult respite care, companion services, in-home health care, home safety modification, meal delivery, shuttle services, counseling and emergency response services. Or, choose an assisted care center to cater to your parent’s every need.