What to look out for in an elderly relative and ways you can help
Already the season of good cheer feels like a distant memory and for many across the Upper Valley, as we head into the coldest, snowiest months of the year, we may not see our families all together for some time. Nowadays, the winter holidays are an increasingly rare opportunity to get the whole family in the same room – a chance to catch up with loved ones we might not see as often as we’d like.
But with the joy of reunion come all the inevitable challenges, whether you hosted or attended, cooked, shopped or decorated, housed or cared for children, siblings, parents or grandparents. We all know that things can be difficult, and one common cause of anxiety at this time of year is concern for our elderly loved ones. As those we care about get older, one of the challenges we face is navigating the physical and mental consequences of aging in a sensitive way. So for anyone with a lingering sense of unease about their elderly relatives, cast your mind back to the festive season and consider whether you saw any of the following signs or symptoms:
1. Decline in physical condition
This includes issues with mobility, dressing, or maintaining personal hygiene, as well as sudden weight loss or loss of appetite. Be particularly wary of physical injuries, difficulty with balance or unexpected loss of movement, which can contribute to an increased risk of falling. More subtle signs can include an empty refrigerator or unstocked bathrooms; indications that the everyday tasks associated with running a household are becoming more challenging or being neglected.
If your loved ones live in a remote area be particularly aware that driving may become an issue at this time of year. The physical coordination required to responsibly operate a vehicle touches on many areas that seniors may have difficulty with – from visual impairment to increased reaction times and reduced dexterity – icy roads, adverse weather, a low sun or fading light can contribute to challenges with driving.
2. Decline in cognitive function
This is sometimes harder to identify as the vast majority of older adults experience forgetfulness from time to time. However, regular memory loss can be a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, look out for missed appointments, forgetting names of friends and family, losing the thread of a conversation or finding everyday tasks confusing or disorienting.
3. Mental health issues
It is not uncommon for seniors suffering from certain types of dementia to experience paranoia, mood swings, personality changes, or depression.
If you noticed any of these signs over the holiday period, know that you are not alone. Millions of seniors across the country will experience these issues and many are a common, unavoidable part of the aging process. Depending on the severity of the symptoms there are a range of ways to be supportive:
1. An open discussion
While every family and every situation is different, we believe that openness is always crucially important, and honest conversation is usually a good starting point. Expressing concern for a parent or elderly loved one can be a sensitive matter, but waiting for the perfect moment can often lead to months of delay. Take the opportunity to reassure your loved ones that you are there for them and perhaps suggest some ways in which you or other family members could be supportive.
2. Ways to be supportive
When considering how best to support your loved ones, make a list of the tasks or activities that they might find most challenging. Can these be divided up between family members? If you don’t live near enough for this to be possible, can you find local support that might be able to help? Look into the senior services in the area and see what is available. Many seniors will be reluctant to accept help – nobody likes to feel they are a burden – if possible, find ways of phrasing your offers that don’t imply inconvenience.
3. Keeping active
Many seniors who are concerned about their health or affected by physical aging tend to reduce their general activity. If possible, when considering the type of support you can offer, think of ways to ensure a continued level of activity and stimulation. This area is often neglected and can feel counter-intuitive, but numerous studies have shown the beneficial value of keeping active, engaging in enriching activities and regular interaction and conversation.
4. Professional support
Depending on their condition, you may decide that your loved one would benefit from professional help. If you suspect this might be the case, have a look for the different options available in your area. This could range from monthly, weekly, or daily home visits from nurses or other professional care staff, to Assisted Living communities like The Village in White River Junction. Many seniors are initially resistant, but we are yet to come across a member of our community who regrets their transition into Assisted Living.
Whichever stage your loved ones are at, know that there are plentiful resources available and thousands of families in the same position. And most importantly, never let your concerns for the future prevent you or your family from enjoying the present – make sure that next big get-together is firmly in the diary.