Visiting elderly loved ones for the holidays? Look for signs of needed help


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Millions of Americans will visit aging parents during the holiday season, so it's a good opportunity to look for signs that older loved ones may need assistance or even a change in living conditions. This "check-up" is particularly important if the parent lives alone, or if one partner in a couple declines in health.

            A new Pew Research Center analysis of census data found that 32 percent of women aged 65 to 84 live alone. Among older men in that age group, 18 percent live alone. A 2014 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 14 percent of the elderly care for a spouse or partner.

Many elderly people want to live at home as long as possible, so family members need to pay attention to the condition of the home as well as the loved one.

            "An aging parent living at home alone can pose a major issue if they slip and fall with no one around to help. Driving can also become a challenge for them, and this can affect everything from the quality of food they eat to the medicines they take," said Eva Hutton, marketing director for Crestview Retirement Community in Bryan, Texas. 

            Hutton advises adult children to check for home trip hazards, especially in the kitchen and bathrooms. Installing bathroom rails, for instance, can help prevent injuries from slips and falls. One out of three adults aged 65 and older fall each year, and a fall can easily become a major health crisis.

            "Adult children need to pay close attention to their parents' physical condition. Do you see significant weight loss or gain? Are they having trouble walking or getting in and out of chairs?"

The adult child also needs to make contact and then stay in contact with their loved one's health care providers, including pharmacists, to understand the parent's medical needs. They should know how frequently mom or dad needs to see the doctor.

            Another area to check is the kitchen cabinet and the refrigerator. Do you see spoiled food or inadequate food supplies? An abundance of canned and frozen foods and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables can indicate a change in ability to prepare healthy meals. Make sure, too, that all appliances are in good working order.

            While many elderly adults can manage well at home, the need for social interaction still exists. The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported in 2015 that a lack of face-to-face contact with family and friends almost doubles the risk of depression in older adults. The study also found that regular contact over the telephone or through email does little to offset the risk.

            "Isolation can lead to depression. If you notice or hear complaints of a lack of energy, of low motivation, of a loss of interest in hobbies, or increased use of alcohol or other drugs, the underlying issue could simply be depression due to a lack of social interaction."

            Hutton suggests adult children should also check for signs of poor hygiene and a decline in home cleanliness and repair, as these can be signs of memory loss.

            "Do you see stacks of unopened mail? Are bills not getting paid? Are medication bottles full, even though the prescription date indicates the bottle should be almost empty? We want people to know how to spot the warning signs so they can make sure their loved ones are getting the help they need, and the holidays are often the best - and sometimes the only - time of year that families are able to check in on their aging parents."