What to Notice During Holiday Visits

By Dede Stoddard

As most of us grew and matured, our parents were there to watch out for us and to help us make appropriate choices. Due to our limited experience, our parents often needed to make decisions for us and to help us understand the consequences of our actions. And even as we began to make better choices, they still kept an eye on us to make sure we were making wise decisions that kept us (and those around us) safe and would protect our futures. As our mom and dad age, the roles reverse and it becomes the adult child’s job to make sure our parents are making healthy decisions. How can you do so when you don’t live near your parents?

Research shows that the geographically nearest adult female child most often becomes the point of contact, closest observer, and often, caregiver of aging parents. The most geographically distant child — the one that doesn’t live close to home and can’t be there to assist their parents on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis — sometimes experiences guilt because he or she feels unable to be the support needed. But occasional observations can sometimes be an asset. Gradual differences are hard to spot when visiting day to day, but when one can only visit occasionally, the changes are more noticeable.

With the holidays approaching, a visit with parents is the perfect opportunity for such observations. So what changes should an adult child look for when visiting with Mom or Dad?

How is Mom’s weight? Has she lost or gained a lot of weight? Is she eating like she should? How is the stock in her pantry and refrigerator, and is it healthy food? Is she forgetting to eat or eating too often? Weight differences can be indicative of many medical and non-medical issues. If you are observing a big weight difference, it may be something to speak to a medical professional about.

How is Dad’s balance? Has he started falling, stumbling or bumping into things? Is he less sure of his feet than he used to be? How is his gait; is he taking smaller steps as if he’s scared he’s going to fall? Has he started staying home to avoid walking in unfamiliar spaces? Is he no longer climbing the stairs to the second floor of his home because he’s afraid he’ll take a tumble? Avoiding falls is important. Not only do falls often break bones, but studies have proven that once an individual falls, another fall is much more likely and life expectancy is reduced markedly. If Dad is being careful, that is not a concern; but if he’s already fallen or is limiting his life because he is afraid he’ll fall, it might be time to seek help.

Is Mom taking her medications as prescribed? Dosages sometimes change and if Mom can’t remember the new times and/or amounts, that’s a big concern.

How is Dad sleeping? Everyone has different sleep habits, so base your observations on past experience. Is he sleeping more or less than he used to? If so, consider talking to a doctor about it.

Was your mom the type that always kept a clean house? How about now? Some amount of alteration is expected as joints stiffen and eyesight diminishes, but has her desire changed? Has she stopped picking up after herself and you see evidence of unsanitary conditions? It’s important to evaluate the reasons. Why has Mom stopped cleaning? Is it because of pain, inconvenience, forgetfulness, or even depression?

Speaking of clean: How is Dad’s hygiene? Is he still showering like he used to? If not, why? Does he have a fear of stepping into the tub or falling in the shower? Or has he just lost an interest in the daily habit? An unclean body can lead to sickness, so if Dad is no longer taking care of himself, help may be necessary.

Make the same observations for clothes. Are they keeping up with the laundry? And, even if the clothes in the closet are clean, are they remembering to change clothes regularly?

How are Dad’s finances? Never look in anyone’s checkbook without their permission — even your own parent’s — but, with permission, make sure Dad is still able to balance his. How are his bills? Is he keeping up with everything, or are things being paid late or not at all? Is he participating in scams or sending unreasonable amounts of money to charities?

Finally, how are your parents doing socially? Compared to how they used to be, are they acting the same or differently? If they used to be very active in church and community, have they begun staying home on Sundays and only going outside to visit the grocery store once a week? Does Mom still send out birthday cards like she used to? Does the phone ring unanswered even though it sits at arm’s reach? Do your visits seem to bother one of them more than encourage? Has a sweet demeanor turned sour? Has quiet understanding turned into confusion?

Discuss any of the above indicators you notice with Mom and Dad with love and understanding. Be patient with them and speak kindly. Your observations may be completely new to them and talking about them may bring on sadness or even anger. It’s possible you’ll bring up the very subject they were hoping to avoid. The important thing is to be loving and respectful.

Help is available in a number of ways. Among the options are: monitored independent living, home health care, assisted living and skilled nursing care. If you feel either Mom or Dad is no longer safe without help, research your options with your parent. Be as open to their desires as you are to your own. With a little professional guidance from a healthcare or social service professional, you’ll be able to help Mom and Dad make wise decisions that will benefit you both.

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