This article was originally published in September 2019 and has since been updated with more current information.
To say that last year’s 2020 holiday season was strange and exhausting would be a massive understatement. With the pandemic raging out of control and the COVID vaccine unavailable to most, many families had to settle for Zoom parties in place of visiting with loved ones.
Even worse, grandparents and other family members more at risk of severe COVID outcomes were forced to shelter away from loved ones, creating even more mental stress, and loneliness.
While we are not completely out of the woods, COVID concerns are easing and with the holiday season nearly upon us once again, this year’s celebrations are about reconnecting with loved ones and checking in on their physical and mental well-being. While we all want to use these get-togethers to spend precious time and catch up with relatives, these gatherings also present the opportunity to keep an eye out for noticeable changes in behavior and living conditions of aging family members. It is important to be alert to any changes that may reveal health needs and care challenges that require intervention.
Watch for these five changes:
- Partners covering for each other. Take note; if one partner is constantly finishing the other's sentences, correcting their recollection of events or hovering around them and helping with menial tasks, such behavior could be an effort to mask declining mental or physical abilities. If you suspect that to be the case, then subtly inquire how long it has been since they saw their doctor. You may recommend that they see a doctor if they are having a hard time hearing, remembering or appear to be anxious or depressed.
- Changes in appearance. Noticeable changes in weight (gain or loss), poor hygiene and disheveled appearance can signal physical or mental issues. These could include medical conditions and emotional problems such as depression. Weight loss could be the result of difficulties performing the physical tasks of cooking and eating, such as handling kitchen tools and shopping. It could be the result of reduced cognitive ability that causes them to forget how to prepare or eat meals. Perhaps medications are not being properly managed. This may be the time to talk to them about their living situation.
- Difficulty getting around. Monitor your aging loved one's mobility. Are they moving noticeably slower? Do they appear to be experiencing pain as they move? If you notice any changes, see if your loved ones have discussed their symptoms with a doctor. Also determine if your aging loved ones are still capable of navigating and driving to appointments and errands. Discuss alternative transportation options to driving if necessary.
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- Changes in living conditions. Are your loved ones carrying out everyday tasks to maintain their home? Check the refrigerator to assure old food is not piling up or see if the garbage has been taken out. Ask your aging loved ones if there is anything you can do to help make it easier for them to live in their home. Discuss the option of in-home care to help carry out some of these tasks, or arrange help among familiar family and friends.
- Money Mismanagement. Discussing finances is a touchy subject for anyone. Look for signs about how well your loved one is managing their finances. Are there old, unopened bills lying round? Is the mail unsorted and piled up? Are there collection notices? Unpaid bills and collection notices can be early signs of memory problems. Also, be alert to any unusual purchases, recent house repairs, "You're a winner!" lottery notices, and mail from foreign countries. As stated in many elder law blogs and articles, senior citizens are often targets of scams and mail fraud.
Family gatherings for holiday celebrations can be used to make sure your aging parents and relatives are properly managing their lives. If your observations cause you concern, discussing these issues during the holidays may not be the appropriate time.
Rather, follow up on your observations after the celebrations are over. Consider discussions and comparing notes with other family members before starting a discussion with the aging parent or relative.
Despite easing COVID restrictions, if you are planning to physically visit with loved ones this holiday season, please do so safely and responsibly.