Holidays mean spending time with family, and if you’re going “over the river and through the woods” to elderly relatives’ homes, it’s an ideal time to check in on their living situation. Discussing aging individuals’ abilities to care for themselves isn’t an easy topic. Loss of independence is a prominent fear for many elderly people, but it needs to be balanced by the risks of living independently with cognitive or physical limitations.
If you haven’t seen your loved one or been in their home lately, consider the following physical, mental and environmental factors that can indicate it’s time to discuss a different living situation or in-home help or care.
- How does your loved one look? Be on the lookout for significant weight loss or gain, which could be indicators of injury, illness or a big change in diet caused by difficulty shopping or cooking as usual.
- Not keeping up with personal hygiene is another indicator that your loved one might need help. Memory trouble or injuries could result in a disheveled appearance or body odor.
- Also be aware of your loved one’s stature. A stooped posture, shuffling walk or exhibiting trouble doing regular activities likely indicates physical frailty and loss of strength.
- If you’re having trouble bringing these physical changes up, remember that, left unchecked, they could result in greater injuries down the road.
- How does your loved one seem to be functioning around the house? Be on the lookout for unusual clutter such as unopened letters or bills, which could be signs of memory issues or trouble dealing with finances. Ask to go through that mail with your loved one to check if there are references to past due payments, overdrafts or other financial concerns.
- Mental decline can also be seen in driving habits. Check your loved one’s vehicle for signs of inattentive driving (dents, lack of upkeep, lack of fluids or services) and suggest going for a drive to see if they are remembering their seatbelt, able to focus on driving, or exhibiting anxiety driving at night or on highways.
- Aging individuals are also at risk for depression. Take a look at your loved one’s calendar or ask them about hobbies, activities and clubs to see if they have cut back on activities they once enjoyed.
- Things around the house that seem small—like spills or a few cobwebs—can actually be a sign of dementia or general decline because they signal a lack of follow-through or physical limitations.
- Check the kitchen for foods past their expiration dates or duplicates of the same item. Duplicates could simply mean your loved one is buying in bulk, but it could also be a sign of memory trouble. Along those same lines, make sure there is adequate food available in the home.
- Accidents are more common for elderly individuals, so be on the lookout for signs of fire—charred items, burned edges, disassembled smoke detectors—or broken appliances.
- Individuals who can’t adequately care for themselves often also have trouble caring for plants, animals and property. Look for dead or dying plants, pets with grooming, hygiene or food issues, and red flags like clogged gutters, broken windows or other maintenance problems.
If it seems that your loved one needs help, make sure that it is a collaborative discussion and solution. The prospect of losing their independence may cause your loved on to feel anxious, resentful, frightened or angry, so have a one-on-one conversation bringing up your concerns with specific examples. Be sure to avoid accusations or becoming frustrated, and encourage them to consider their safety and if they would want people they care about living in similar conditions. Remind them that you both have the same goal—for your loved one to be safe, happy and healthy during the holiday and all year long!
Author: Ann Patek
Ann Patek, RN, MSN, is the Service Line Director for Palliative Care at Ministry Health Care. In this role Ann serves as a member of the dyad providing leadership to the palliative care service line (her partner is Olumuyiwa Adeboye, MD). Ann’s interest in palliative care stems from her experiences working with patient’s in many settings along with witnessing friends and family coping with serious illness.
Ann received her Bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and earned her Master’s degree from University of Wisconsin – Madison.