Home for the Holidays … Signs and Action Steps if You’re Worried About Your Loved Ones

This time of year, many of us drive miles through the snow, or brave crowded airports, in order to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Day and other special winter holidays with our loved ones. It’s a magical, almost iconic moment when we walk through the front door, greeted by the smell of baking cookies, the sight of the traditional decorations we’ve loved for years, and hugs from our parents and grandparents.

But when our loved ones are growing older, these visits are sometimes bittersweet. It’s no coincidence that senior care organizations report an uptick in calls right after the holidays. After perhaps a year of separation from them, these visits may offer clues that our older loved ones need help remaining safe and healthy at home.

The younger generation may not know what to do. This is a reversal of what they’ve known. Mom and Dad always cared for them, but now Mom and Dad are the ones who need help. Here are some of the signs that could mean it’s time to step in:

Memory lapses and problems thinking: forgetting recently learned information; trouble completing tasks that were formerly easy for them; having trouble accessing words; putting things in unusual places.

Neglecting their grooming: Bathing infrequently; wearing dirty clothes day after day.

A change in housekeeping habits: a dirty, cluttered house; trash piling up; holiday decorations still in the box for the first time.

Nutrition challenges: little food in the pantry; spoiled or outdated food; a diet made up mostly of processed, prepackaged food.

Depression: loss of interest in the things they once loved to do; social isolation; a preoccupation with people who have passed away or other losses.

Paperwork problems: bills piling up; past-due notices; sweepstakes mailings, donations to phony charities, or other evidence that your loved one may have been defrauded.

Signs that your loved one has fallen: bruises, having suffered a broken bone; greatly reduced activity due to a fear of falling.

Automotive red flags: traffic tickets, unexplained dents on the car.

If you’ve noticed some of these changes in an older relative, what can you do?

First, know that you may have mixed feelings about doing anything at all. Your loved one may fiercely protect their independence. They may deny that there’s a problem. And maybe you’re not sure if there’s anything to worry about. Dad never was a great housekeeper, right? Other family members may disagree, as well.

But it’s important to overcome the impulse to do nothing, if that’s what you’re feeling. The sooner your loved one’s challenges are addressed, the better! Get a conversation going. Hold a family meeting. Talk to neighbors if you can—they may be able to offer insights. Urge your loved one to make a doctor’s appointment. Offer to come along if you can, and if your loved one is willing. Many of the changes above could be caused not by the beginnings of dementia, but by depression, medication side effects or another treatable cause.

Help your loved one locate support services

Contact your local senior services agency to learn about senior transportation, senior centers and other services for which your loved one might qualify. A geriatric care manager, elder care lawyer and financial planner or other trusted professional may offer insight and facilitate a family meeting. For many families, professional home care services help preserve the safety and quality of life of seniors who live at home—and this helps family members sleep at night, no matter how far away they live.

This is the beginning of a new chapter in your family’s life. The earlier you begin having the conversation, the better things will go.

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