Holidays with Senior Parents: Three Signs Their Health Might Be Failing

One of the most stressful events a long-distance caregiver can experience is coming home for the holidays and realizing that things simply are not right with Mom and Dad. I’ve talked to countless adult children who have seen a parent fall while visiting and discovered it wasn’t for the first time or noticed confusion during routine activities as simple as making breakfast.

Although it’s not unusual for elderly parents to mask their unmanageability on a weekly phone call, it’s harder to hide face to face. This year when you’re home for the holidays, look out for changes that might suggest your parents are struggling on their own.

Physical Changes

Physical appearance can speak volumes. Do you notice changes in hygiene, like body odor, crumpled or stained clothing, or stubble on a father who has always been clean-shaven? It’s also important to look for signs of weight loss or gain as well as hints that their physical or medical condition is changing. A limp, a pained expression, or even mood changes can be indications of a new or advancing health condition.

Cognitive Difficulties

Some memory loss is natural as we age – things like momentarily forgetting where the keys are or taking a few seconds to search for a word.  This is different than Alzheimer’s or other dementias, which are diseases of the brain. Indications that a parent may be developing the condition go beyond simple memory deficit and can include symptoms such as:

  • Challenges planning activities or solving problems
  • Getting lost when driving to a familiar place
  • Becoming disoriented and forgetting what to buy in stores
  • Misplacing items
  • Forgetting to buy gifts
  • Regularly missing appointments
  • Forgetting to take medication
  • Leaving piles of mail scattered in various places
  • Not opening bills or letters from banks, creditors or insurers referring to overdue payments, overdrawn balances
  • Forgetting to turn off the stove or oven – signs can be burnt knobs or pots

Habit Changes

A change in your parents’ habits may also be a sign of developing dementia. Perhaps they have always kept their home very tidy and it is now noticeably unclean. Maybe they have stopped getting together with friends or are skipping their usual routines of exercise, church or volunteering. These can also be indications of possible dementia and should be explored.

What to Do

If you are concerned your parent may be developing dementia, schedule a visit with their doctor, who can evaluate what might be causing the symptoms and discuss next steps. While the diagnosis of this disease is understandably feared, early detection is very important so that you, your parent and your entire family can plan, manage and with the right support and resources, make the most of this time of life.

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