Six Things to Look for When Visiting Elderly Parents

If you live far away from your aging parents, the holiday season is often the one time you may see them all year. Enjoy your visit and use the opportunity to check to see how they’re coping.

1. The condition of your mother and father’s home. If things don’t look clean or you see stacks of paperwork, magazines, or other stuff sitting around this may be a sign that they’re not keeping up. Ask them how they’re doing. It might be a good time to explore whether they could use a housecleaner or are ready to move to a smaller living space.

2. Food in cupboards, refrigerator and freezer. How much food is in the cupboards and refrigerator? Are things outdated? Is the freezer full of frozen dinners? Food preparation is often one of the first things to fall by the wayside for an older adult.

3. Covert messages from friends and neighbors. If you have an opportunity to speak with your parents’ close friends and neighbors, listen closely for anything they may be trying to communicate. They may be torn between not wanting to meddle and feeling concerned so they may not give you direct information. If you suspect something is different about your parents ask friends and neighbors if they think anything is different. They may be looking to you for a signal that it’s okay to share their concerns.

4. How your parents are in social situations. Are they happy, present in the conversation, aware of what’s going on around them? Or do they look overwhelmed or confused? If your parents spend a great deal of time alone, being around a large group of people can be overwhelming. If they seem this way throughout your trip or no matter how small the group they’re around, it might be cause for further investigation.

5. Opportunities to interact with their medical professionals. If there’s an opportunity to tag along to a medical appointment do it. While HIPPA prevents medical staff from sharing information with you without your parents’ permission, if you go into the room when they see the doctor you can hear what’s being discussed and ask any questions you have. This might also be a good time to ask your parents for permission to talk with medical staff. (This requires that they sign a release specifically listing you as someone their doctor can share information with. Explain to your parent’s that it would be helpful to be able to talk to their doctor in an emergency.

6. Driving skills. Be a passenger in the car with your parent. Simply observe his/her comfort level behind the wheel, how she/he responds to traffic situations and if he/she shows any signs of confusion. You may need to allow for the fact that just you being in the car may make her/him nervous.

If you discover things that concern you, don’t jump to the conclusion that your parent is slipping. For example, in #1-#4 above, the changes you see may not be the result of your parents getting older and frail but of drug interactions or depression. Some next steps might be to discuss your concerns with your parents; find out what medications your parents are on and do your own research on drug interactions; encourage them to talk to their doctor about drug interactions or a depression screening; consider whether a neurological evaluation would be helpful; visit again, sooner rather than later if you have any concerns, and continue to monitor.

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