What to Look for When Visiting Loved Ones over the Holidays

“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go…”

hanging red ornamentsThe number of long distance caregivers is remarkable. A study by the National Alliance of Caregivers in collaboration with AARP estimates that 15% of the 34 million who provide care to their loved ones live an hour or more away from their family member.

As the holidays approach, many long distance caregivers plan visits with their family and have the opportunity to observe their loved ones for the first time in several months. For some this could be revealing. While weekly phone conversations and updates from neighbors and friends are helpful, actually spending time and getting an up close view of loved ones in their living environment paints a more accurate picture of how they are coping physically, cognitively and emotionally.

The following triggers are important to look for to assess the safety and well-being of your loved one:

Weight Loss

One of the most visible signs of declining health, both physically and/or cognitively is weight loss. Possible causes could include cancer, dementia, heart failure or depression. An individual may no longer have the energy and/or skills to prepare meals, or cannot read meal preparation instructions due to impaired vision. As seniors age they lose their sense of taste so food may no longer interest them. Certain medications can also change the way that food tastes. Dementia can cause older adults to forget that they have or have not eaten. Regardless of the cause, weight loss is an issue that warrants immediate attention.

Mobility

As seniors age their ability to ambulate decreases, whether it is due to pain, joint or muscle issues, impaired vision, or a decline in cognition. Regardless of the cause, older adults are at risk for falls. Falls pose a serious problem for seniors as a fall can cause serious injury and even death. There are several measures that can be taken to help prevent falls—a physical therapy evaluation, clear pathways within the home, and treatment of the underlying cause of pain, joint and muscle issues.

Depression

The holidays can be a difficult time for seniors so it is not unusual for many to experience melancholy and sadness. However, there are symptoms to look for that can be indicative of depression, which is not a normal part of aging. Symptoms of depression include: lack of interest in activities, social withdrawal, disturbances in sleep pattern, apathy, and inattention to personal hygiene. This condition should not be overlooked and the senior’s primary care physician needs to be contacted.

Home Environment

The condition of an older adults’ home environment provides significant information to the visiting caregiver. Untouched stacks of mail on the counter, spoiled food in the refrigerator, full medication bottles with expired dates, dents and scratches on the car, and scorched cookware in the sink could be indicators that your loved one is either physically or cognitively unable to continue to live alone safely. Other red flags include wearing soiled clothing, poor attention to hygiene, and generalized disarray where there once was order.

There may be additional areas of concern that are specific to your loved one. Whatever the problem, a plan of action needs to be put into place. If possible, try to involve your loved one in the conversation. The intent of the plan is to avoid a potential crisis in the future. Other family members, the primary care physician, or even a professional Geriatric Care Manager may need to be brought in to help develop and initiate the plan.

While the holidays are a time to celebrate and spend quality time with loved ones the necessity of “taking care of business” to ensure that your loved one can continue to live safely and independently cannot be overstated.

Nancy Hanley, RN
Geriatric Care Manager

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