As we head into the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend we look forward to sumptuous meals and reconnecting with family members. We’ll happily marvel at how much children have grown; and somewhat less joyously recognize that older loved ones are struggling to complete basic daily tasks. Mom’s difficulty cooking dinner, or dad’s inability to stay focused during conversations are both signs your parents are aging. Things that were subtle in the past are now more evident and impossible to ignore.
The blessing and curse of “aging” is getting older. While some decline is expected, the pertinent question becomes whether Mom/Dad/Grandma etc. now (or soon will) need help to safely make it through the day.
Recognizing the signs early allows for proper planning and preparations (think: quality of care and cost), as opposed to a panicked response in the midst of a family crisis. Here are a few things to look for/consider during your holiday visit:
Signs around the house. Pay attention to the living areas. If the house is normally immaculate look for signs that regular cleaning may not be occurring. A home that has always been well maintained but is now unkempt could mean that cleaning is becoming too difficult. Look for stacked or unopened mail which might indicate the person is having difficulty seeing or is depressed. Also, look for things like laundry or dishes piling up. The weight of the clothes, or difficulty loading the dishwasher could be responsible. Check out the yard and exterior condition of the house. Look for signs that regular maintenance and upkeep is not occurring. These can all be signs that normal household tasks are becoming too difficult and some level of intervention is or soon will become necessary.
Eating regularly/properly. Have a meal (in addition to Thanksgiving dinner) with your older loved ones. In their home is best (if it can be arranged without arousing suspicion). Observe how and how much they eat. Have them help you with food preparation or setting the table. You’ll see how long they can stand and their ability to manage simple cooking or dining tasks. If they are having difficulty helping you, then you can reasonably assume they’ll have difficulty feeding themselves when they’re home alone. Most elderly people take medications which require food so proper eating habits are especially important to keep them safe and healthy.
Walking/ambulation. Walking is always great exercise and a wonderful opportunity to chat (see final tip below). Carefully observe whether the person is steady on their feet, how far they can walk, and if being on their feet for an extended period of time causes any residual issues (ex: dizziness or muscle soreness).
Driving. If your loved one still drives then visually inspect the car for dents, scratches etc. If there are obvious signs of damage then tactfully inquire about the cause of the damage. Also, go for rides with them driving. Observe how they handle the car; whether they drive the appropriate speed, get frazzled or frustrated easily, can safely make left turns, and whether they remember to use appropriate signals. Also notice whether they have begun to self-regulate (ex: drive only short distances or during daylight hours). If they are having difficulties– for their safety and others on the road-you may need to speak with them about alternative means of transportation. FYI, this will likely not be a simple or single conversation.
Attitude and Disposition. When talking to, or spending time with your loved one pay special attention to their disposition and how they act or react to various stimuli. For example, if your favorite aunt-who has always had an upbeat personality-is now quiet and withdrawn this may be an indication that something is wrong. Admittedly, we all have bad days so don’t put too much emphasis on any one statement or interaction, but be mindful and observe whether a pattern has formed. If so, it could be any of several things (depression, frustration, loneliness etc.). If necessary have them examined by an appropriate medical professional.
Telephone/FaceTime. When you can’t visit someone the telephone or FaceTime may help you determine the status of their health. Call your loved ones regularly and speak for a few minutes. See if they: engage; speak at an appropriate speed and volume; follow the flow of the conversation; and can have a “normal” interaction. If you get concerned a simple “test” is to ask them the same series of questions in different conversations. See whether they remember you asking the questions, and if they provide the same responses.
Conversation. Finally, don’t forget one of the most powerful tools in any caregiver’s toolbox: conversation. It’s also the simplest tool to use. Simply ask your older loved one if they need help. You might get lucky and they admit they’re starting to have difficulties. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s usually followed by sincere appreciation that someone took an interest in their well-being. FYI, even when they don’t say it, they ALWAYS appreciate you looking after them. As an added bonus-you feel great too.
Hopefully, these tips will be helpful to you and your elderly loved ones. For more expansive explanations and additional tips please visit the http://MrEldercare101.com site. Happy holidays and good luck on your caregiving journeys.