Home for the Holidays: Watch for Signs that a Parent Needs Help

By Lisa M. Petsche

Addressing the needs of aging parents is a big concern for many boomers. Determining whether mom or dad needs help managing day to day can be especially difficult when he or she doesn’t live close by.

A holiday visit with a parent presents the perfect opportunity to assess first-hand how well he or she (for simplicity, the latter will be used from here on) is coping alone.

Plan to stay with your parent long enough so you are not rushed. That way you’ll have ample time not only to enjoy each other’s company and special holiday activities, but also to get a good sense of how she is doing.

The following are some indicators that your parent needs assistance with the activities of daily living.

  • Grooming: Changes in appearance, such as unkempt hair; inappropriate dress or soiled clothing; body odor.
  • Nutrition: Noticeable weight loss; insufficiently or inappropriately stocked refrigerator and pantry.
  • Housekeeping: Accumulation of dirty dishes, laundry or garbage; excessive dirt or clutter.
  • Finances: Unopened bills; major credit card debt or large, inexplicable bank account withdrawals; inability to perform basic banking transactions, including writing a check.
  • Medication: Non-compliance with medication regimes – look for prescriptions that haven’t been filled and for unused medication; lack of an organized system for managing medications.
  • Mobility: Difficulty going from sitting to standing; poor balance or walking endurance; difficulty negotiating stairs.
  • Safety: Recent falls – look for bruises or limping; cluttered walkways or stairwells; accidents with household appliances.
  • Energy Level: Lethargy or social withdrawal.
  • Mental Status: Poor short-term memory; inability to carry out familiar routines or follow instructions; lack of insight into her needs and limitations; suspiciousness.
Getting Help

Here are some ways to help, depending on your parent’s situation. Some may necessitate extending your stay or planning a follow-up visit early in the New Year.

  • Arrange for a medical check-up and accompany your parent. Lethargy, forgetfulness or confusion could be caused by reversible conditions such as infection or depression. Request a medication review – side effects, drug interactions or overmedication might be the root of difficulties. Also, ask a pharmacist about aids for organizing and remembering to take medications.
  • If vision is a problem, ask your parent’s doctor for a referral to an ophthalmologist. If nothing can be done to improve her vision, get her a magnifier for reading and other visually adaptive items such as a large-keypad telephone.
  • If falls are a concern, perform a home safety assessment to identify potential hazards and do what you can to rectify them. Visit a medical supply store to check out the many products that might make daily activities easier and safer.
  • If financial management is an issue, arrange for direct deposit of pension checks and automatic bill payments from your parent’s bank account. If necessary, have mail redirected to your own home. Encourage her to contact a lawyer about assigning a power of attorney for property to one or two trusted individuals.
  • Investigate available resources in the community. These might include: grocery delivery services; meals on wheels; volunteer driver programs; accessible transportation; therapeutic day programs; recreation programs; and home health care services. Such information can be obtained from the local office on aging.

If the needs you identify are not urgent, defer discussing them with your parent until after the holidays are over, so you don’t spoil the festive mood. This also gives you an opportunity to consult with siblings and arrange a family meeting if necessary.

If your parent is resistant to the idea of assistance, start by trying to interest her in one of the least intrusive options, such as making minor home adaptations or using a grocery delivery service.

Stress that your aim is to help her age in place and preserve her independence. If she won’t accept help for her own sake, ask her to consider it in order to give you peace of mind. She may be more receptive to certain suggestions if they come from someone outside the family, such as a health care professional or trusted friend.

Even if your parent appears to be managing well right now, it’s a good idea to begin learning about resources in her community that might be of aid in the future. This can help to avert a crisis, and if one does arise, you’ll be ready to assist her in making informed decisions and necessary arrangements.

Lisa M. Petsche is a social worker and a freelance writer specializing in boomer and senior issues. She has personal and professional experience with elder care.

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