How to determine if your aging parents might benefit from a little extra support

The holidays are a time to reconnect and celebrate, as many of us and traveling to see loved ones – sometimes for the first time in months. While you’re enjoying each other’s company, you may also have an opportunity to check in to see how your aging parents or other people close to you are doing on a day-to-day basis.

It may be the chance you’ve been waiting for to come together as a family and assess more thoroughly whether Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, could benefit from a little assistance. Having concentrated time together can help you get a clearer picture of what’s happening and have a family conversation about services that might make things easier on your loved one during the next year.

“Holiday family time is the perfect opportunity to evaluate the health, safety and well-being of older adults who are still living independently in their own home,” says Deb Taylor, CEO of Senior Community Services, a local nonprofit that advocates for older adults and helps seniors and caregivers maintain their independence through free or low-cost services.

With the help of Taylor and a member of her team of social workers at Senior Community Services, we compiled a list of six things to look for if you’re concerned about the well-being of your aging parents or other loved ones:

1. Look for changes in appearance. Dramatic weight loss or weight gain can be a sign of more serious dietary or health problems. Bruising may be a symptom of falls or injuries caused by loss of balance. Burn marks could be the result of cooking injuries. If the person you are concerned about usually is put-together, but is now less concerned about his or her appearance, it may also be a reason to be concerned. A change in the person’s walk or gait could also be a sign something is wrong. Monitor the person’s appearance over time, as sometimes the person may be able to hide a serious problem for a few hours.

2. How does the house look? If your loved one has always kept things shipshape and you notice that’s no longer the case, it may be a sign that physical problems or financial restraints are preventing them from keeping up. Warning signs include oft-used appliances or furniture in need of fixing, piles of laundry that aren’t done or uncleared walks or driveways. If you notice the smell of urine, it may be a sign of incontinence, which may cause some embarrassment but is a common problem for older adults.

3. Check for signs of poor nutrition. If you’re concerned about your loved one getting enough healthy food, check to see if the refrigerator or shelves are stocked. Even if the shelves and the refrigerator are full, the presence of many out-of-date items could be a sign that your loved one is either having trouble cooking or accessing healthy food. Dehydration can be a major concern for seniors as well, so if you’re spending an extended amount of time with your loved one, keep an eye on how much water he or she is drinking.

4. Ask about medications. Is your loved one adhering to a schedule for medications? This can be a very personal topic, so it depends on your comfort level with the person you are concerned about. Try easing in to the conversation by talking about medications you might be taking. If you do happen to notice expired medications around the house, it might mean the person is having trouble remembering to take them or might be facing financial difficulties in paying for medications.

5. Monitor personality changes. Does your loved one seem distant or withdrawn? Or perhaps the person’s behavior just doesn’t fit with previous patterns. You might find the person is getting frustrated by tasks that used to seem routine. While there could be a variety of explanations for changes in behavior, it can be a sign that something is wrong.

6. Signs of financial struggle. After working hard for so many years to provide for their families, it can be really difficult for aging parents to ask for help when they are struggling. Signs that your loved ones might be struggling financially can include unopened mail or bills, or checks bouncing. Changing social plans to avoid spending money may also be a sign of financial struggle. Financial difficulties such as failing to pay bills or forgetting to file at tax time can also be related to memory loss.

There are a number of reasons that one might worry about loved ones, from physical and mental health to financial concerns. The good news is that if you have any of these worries, there are great resources out there to help. While your loved ones may be concerned about having to leave their homes if they are struggling, know that there are a lot of support services that can help older adults maintain their independence.

This post is the first in a series of three on caring for aging parents. See Part 2: What resources are available to those caring for aging parents? and Part 3: Having the conversation with your aging parents about getting help at home.