Last week, my dear friend Melissa from Toronto called me with some distressing news about her parents.
Her Mom, who is but 70 years old, is showing early signs of dementia. Her Dad, who is 10 years older, is facing some major mobility issues due to chronic back pain.
Needless to say, Melissa is, as she puts it, “freaking out” about a pending eldercare crisis.
I’m quite distressed, too.
Her parents, who I still call Mr. and Mrs. Green, were a constant presence in my life up until I moved west.
When Melissa asked if I could visit the family home and assess the situation, I immediately said, “Yes” and in another breath, starting peppering her with questions about the current situation.
Although my primary motive was gathering facts, I’d be lying if it wasn’t also to mentally prepare myself for the shocking changes in her parent’s physical and mental health.
Most long-distance caregivers rely on regular telephone conversations or by keeping in close contact with in-town family and friends to gauge how well an aging loved one is managing. When families visit after an extended time away, it can feel overwhelming to see the physical, emotional and cognitive changes in an aging loved one.
Families often overlook the “signs” that aging loved ones may need more help or care than they are willing to admit to. Uncertainties or lack of knowledge about the aging process makes it hard to judge whether a senior’s behaviour is normal or a cause for concern.
I’ve listed some of key indicators to focus on when determining if seniors are in need of additional care or assistance.
Appearance often shows if an aging loved one is being limited either physically or mentally from completing daily tasks.
Are clothes being properly laundered? Do they look unkempt? Does Mom continue to wear makeup? When you hug your parents, do they feel frailer? What did a “sniff test” reveal?
Listening to how an aging parent speaks and how they say it can tell you a lot about their current mental and emotional status.
Do they call you by name? Is their language normal? Are they up on the news? Are they continuing to enjoy hobbies, social activities?
Changes in behaviour such as a parent becoming reclusive or fearful, or a lack of motivation may indicate signs of depression or dementia. If your aging loved one show serious signs of forgetfulness that is not forgetting where the car keys are, but forgetting what the car keys are for, ensure you follow up with their physician as soon as possible.
Spending time in their living environment can also give valuable clues.
Does their living environment have any unpleasant odors? A bare or nearly empty fridge, spoiled foods or signs of weight loss may indicate noteworthy concerns that your parent isn’t able to eat well due to health issue or difficulty with shopping or meal preparation.
Does your parent appear to safely move around the kitchen? Are medications being taken properly? What about the expiration dates on their pill bottles?
Piles of unopened mail, unread newspapers and unpaid bills may be a sign that your aging loved one isn’t managing aspects of their finances due to health or cognitive issues.
Although the last thing you want to do over the holidays is to make the “naughty” list, expressing your concerns about your parent’s ability to remain independent, is not something to be ignored.
Take the time to write down your concerns prior to initiating a discussion. Determine if this visit is the best time to start the conversation or would it be more appropriate to wait until after the holidays.
A big thank you to all those who continue to take the time to read my column. Your positive and encouraging feedback feeds my soul and inspires me to continue writing on eldercare issues.
May each of you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!
Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.