For many of us, the holidays are a time to reconnect with family, friends and neighbors. For those of us who aren’t able to see our aging loved ones and elderly neighbors on a regular basis, a holiday visit allows us to reconnect personally, but it also gives us the chance to get a good handle on their health and well-being.
This year when you make your holiday visits, I would encourage you to include the seniors in your life—not only to share well wishes for the holidays with them, but to make sure that they are living well.
There are five simple things you can incorporate into your visit to help you get a better handle on how your aging loved ones are doing:
1. Greet them with a hug
In addition to being a nice way to share a friendly greeting, a hug will give you clues as to how fit they are. Do they feel steady? How is their stature? Do they hug back? Do they smell clean or do they have a concerning odor? Have they lost or gained weight?
Weight loss may be indicative of a number of things. It might be social or financial concerns that keep them from shopping. They may have difficulty cooking because they can no longer read the fine print on food labels. Maybe they are having difficulty following the directions or grasping the utensils correctly. Weight loss could indicate a loss of taste or smell. Or it could be something more serious such as malnutrition, dementia, depression or cancer. It could also indicate a loss of taste or smell, or it could be something more serious, such as malnutrition, dementia, depression or even cancer.
Weight gain could be a result of anything from decreased mobility, to diabetes, or even dementia. It is not uncommon for people with dementia to forget that they already ate. They might be looking for lunch at 1p.m. when they ate at noon.
2. Take the time to sit and listen
Listening is truly the lost art in communicating. Most of us are so busy talking and asking questions that we fail to actually listen. Listening to the seniors in our life often requires a combination of what I call “pretend and patience”. Pretend that it’s the very first time you’ve heard the same story for the umpteenth time, and do it with all focus and interest that you can. Be patient. Remember one day you may be the one telling that same story again.
While it is true that we all forget things from time to time and that modest memory problems are a fairly common part of aging, there is a difference between normal changes in memory and the type of memory loss that makes it hard to do everyday things such as driving and shopping.
Signs of a memory loss that may require a closer assessment might include:
- asking the same questions over and over again in a short period of time
- getting lost in places that were once familiar
- not being able to follow basic directions
- confusing times, people and places
3. Ask about their friends
Talk to them about their social life.Are they connecting with friends? Have they maintained interest in former hobbies and other activities? Are they involved in organizations, clubs or faith-based communities? Social isolation may be indicative of physical, emotional, and psychological diseases and should be evaluated by a medical professional.
4. Act like a nosy neighbor
While no one professes to like a nosy neighbor, sometimes taking a closer look at the environment your loved one lives in can help you help them.
- Look for clutter. While not everyone is the neatest, look to see if the clutter has become cumbersome. The inability to throw things away can be a sign of a neurological or physical issue. Clutter that spills onto the floor can also be a tripping hazard.
- Rifle through their mail. Do they have unopened personal mail? Lots of us have unopened junk mail, but when you have a self-addressed letter, and it’s a personal letter, most of us would open that. Do they have opened bills or letters from banks or creditors? Thank you notes from charities? Sometimes these may be an indication that not only are they being generous, maybe they’re being forgetful givers. When they’ve been asked by one charity again and again to donate and they continue to do it, they may be getting taken advantage of and not even know it.
- Open the refrigerator, drawers, cabinets and pantry. Look for perishables that are past their expiration dates. Green eggs and ham are only good in Dr. Seuss books. Do they have multiples of the same item? If they have ten boxes of fabric softener, but no laundry detergent it might indicate that they can’t remember from one shopping trip to the next what’s in the cupboards. Check the appliances—microwave, coffee maker, toaster, washer dryer—to see if they are in good working order. Look for signs of burns or small fires…charred stove knobs or pot bottoms, potholders with burned edges, a discharged fire extinguisher, or smoke detectors that have been disassembled. Accidents happen even to those of us with the best memories—but accidental fires are a common home danger for older adults. Look for spills in the refrigerator or counters that have not been cleaned up. Spills that haven’t been cleaned up are a common sign of dementia—the person lacks the follow-through to clean up after a mess. Or it may indicate that your loved one may have physical limitations and simply needs more help around the house.
- Peek in their medicine cabinet. Look for expired, duplicate or empty medication bottles.
- Pay attention to the pets and plants that they may have. Animals that don’t seem well tended to or plants that are dying, dead, or just gone, that may indicate how well that individual is able to take care of other living things, which ultimately says how well they’re able to take care of things in their own life.
5. Take a stroll or go for a ride
Pay close attention to how your loved one gets around. Do they have more difficulty getting up from a chair? How is their balance? Do they shuffle when they walk? Do they have trouble increasing their walking speed or slowing down? Difficulty with walking can be due to muscle weakness, joint pain or more serious conditions like Parkinson’s Disease. Limited mobility can lead to falls and injury and to a host of other problems, everything from from malnutrition to social isolation.
If your aging loved one still drives you may want to go for a short ride with them. When you do look for signs of safety concerns:
- Do you notice any nicks or dents as you enter and exit the car?
- Do they fasten their seatbelt?
- Are any of the dashboard warning lights on indicating maintenance concerns?
- Do they tailgate the care in front of them?
- Do they drive consistently below the speed limit?
- Do they confuse the brake and the gas pedal?
What to do when you have concerns
If your holiday visit with your aging loved one reveals some worrisome clues of trouble or you see crises unfolding before your eyes, there are steps you can take:
- Share your concerns with your loved one. That alone might be enough for them to see a doctor or make other changes.
- If you are not comfortable having that conversation, you may just want to encourage them to get a “regular” medical checkup. Consider reaching out to the doctor ahead of time, letting them know what your insights are. That can really help the doctor understand what to look for during that upcoming visit. Keep in mind that the doctor might need to verify that he or she has permission to speak with you about their care, which might include a signed form or waiver from them. You might even want to offer to schedule the visit yourself or to have someone accompany them to the doctor.
- Address safety issues. Point out any potential safety issues that you see and work with them to find a solution.
- Look into home care services. You could help them hire someone to clean the house and run errands. A home health care aide may be very helpful with daily activities, such as bathing, and Meals on Wheels may be a great way to look at providing community services and help prepare food. If remaining at home is a challenge, you might even suggest having them look into moving to an assisted living facility.
- Seek help from local agencies. Your local agency on aging—which you can find using the Eldercare Locator, a public service of the Administration on Aging—can connect you with services in your parents’ area. For example, the county in which your parents live might have social workers who can evaluate their needs and connect them with services, such as home health care.
Remember, sometimes your loved ones won’t admit they need help or they simply don’t realize that they need it. Make sure they know that you care about them and you just want them to be healthy and happy for many holidays to come.
Watch Dr. Gloth talk about these tips below!
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