'Tis the season for holiday celebrations and family gatherings. These gatherings offer the opportunity to surreptitiously keep an eye out for noticeable changes in behavior and living conditions of aging loved ones. It is important to be alert to changes because these may reveal health needs and care challenges that require intervention. Here are five "signs" to look for:
- Partners covering for each other. Take note if one partner is constantly finishing the other's sentences, correcting their recollection of events or hovering around them and helping with menial tasks. Such behavior can be an effort to mask a partner's declining mental or physical abilities. If you suspect that to be the case, then subtly inquire how long it has been since they saw their doctor. You might recommend that they see a doctor if they are having a hard time hearing, remembering or appear to be more anxious or depressed.
- Changes in appearance. Noticeable changes in weight (gain or loss), poor hygiene and slovenly dress can signal physical or mental issues. These could include medical conditions and emotional problems such as depression. Weight loss could be the result of difficulties performing the physical tasks of cooking and eating, such as handling kitchen tools and shopping. It could be the result of reduced thinking ability that causes them to forget how to prepare or eat meals. It could also result from not taking medications properly.
- Difficulty getting around. Monitor your aging loved one's mobility. Are they moving slower than last year's holiday get-together? Do they appear to experience pain as they move? If you notice any changes, see if your loved ones have discussed their symptoms with a doctor. Also determine if your aging loved ones are still capable of navigating and driving for appointments and errands. Discuss alternative transportation options to driving if necessary.
- Change in living conditions. Are your loved ones carrying out everyday tasks to maintain their home? Check the fridge and make sure old food is not piling up or see if the garbage was taken out. Ask your aging loved ones if there is anything you can do to help make it easier for them to live in their home. Discuss the option of in-home care to help carry out some of these tasks.
- Money Mismanagement. Money is a touchy subject for anyone. But, look for signs about how well your loved one is managing their finances. Are there old, unopened bills lying round? Is the mail unsorted and piled up? Are there collection notices? Unpaid bills and collection notices can be early signs of memory problems. Also, be alert to any unusual purchases, recent house repairs, "You're a winner!" lottery notices, and mail from foreign countries as senior citizens are often a target of scams and mail fraud.
Families gather for the holiday celebrations, but you can also use the time together to make sure your aging loved ones are properly managing their lives. If your observations cause you concern, you probably should not discuss them during the holidays. Rather, follow up on your observations after the celebrations are over. Consider comparing notes with other family members before starting a discussion with the aging parent or loved one.