Many of us will visit our aging parents this holiday season, perhaps for the first time in a long while. The visit can be an opportunity to evaluate how your folks are doing, and determine if they need or want any help. Even if you have been in touch with them frequently via phone or video calls, there is nothing like an in-person visit to assess how things are really going.
Of course, “checking up” on your parents is a process fraught with emotional baggage for everyone! Many parents resist discussing their problems with their adult children, and find it distressing to admit they may need help. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, that resistance and distress come from fear of losing independence, becoming a burden to loved ones, being taken advantage of, and losing control. And for adult children, feeling a responsibility to care for parents and figuring out how to best approach them can be challenging: Alan Castel of UCLA’s Memory and Lifespan Cognition Lab notes: “It’s a strange shift from when they were responsible for you. Now you might be responsible for them, and they’re not listening to your orders the way an 8-year-old would.” If your siblings are not on the same page as you, you have another layer of complexity to navigate.
Unless your parent is in imminent danger and you must take immediate action despite any resistance, the rule of thumb is to listen, and to respect and solicit your parent’s ideas. Don’t swoop down and try to take over. Try to not impose your agenda, even if what is needed is perfectly obvious to you. Express your concerns and tell them you want to do whatever you can to make their quality of life the best it can be. If your parent does not want to engage in the conversation, do not think you have failed. Hopefully there will be another visit, another talk, and you will have planted a seed. Remember too that your parents may be more willing to talk over their needs with someone other than you: their peers, their own siblings, clergy, maybe a geriatric care manager.
Pay Attention to These Issues When You Visit
Safeguarding your parents’ welfare can involve a bit of sleuthing. Here are some things to observe when you visit:
- Is the house being maintained, as compared to how it was customarily kept in the past? Are there piles of dishes, undiscarded newspapers and the like? A seriously untidy home that used to be more pristine may be a sign that Mom and Dad could use some help at home.
- What about the refrigerator and pantry? Is there a sufficient supply of food? Expired food or spoiled food could be a red flag. You might want to arrange for a grocery delivery service or the delivery of ready-to-cook food.
- How do your parents seem physically since the last time you saw them? Has been there a significant gain or loss of weight? Are they steady on their feet? When is the last time they saw the doctor?
- What about vision and hearing? Maybe mom could use a new watch with large numerals, or a visit to the audiologist?
- Check your parent’s personal grooming and care. Is dad shaved? Are his clothes clean?
- What about cognitive status? Has your parents become overly forgetful or confused? Any dramatic personality changes? Is a visit to their doctor or a specialist in order?
- Is your parent still driving? If so, suggest your parent take you for a drive somewhere, so you can assess safety. Look at the car, too: Lots of dings and dents on the car could signal problems.
- Do they seem to be taking care of their bills, insurance premiums, etc? Or are there stacks of unopened mail?
- Check the stove and oven. Scorched appliances and cookware may be a red flag, too.
- If you can, check their medications. Are they current or are they expired? While you are at it, get a list of their current medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. If your parent ever goes to the emergency room, one of the first things hospital staff will ask for is a list of medications. There are also pharmacy services that you can hire to get the appropriate items delivered on a timely basis. Getting a list of their various doctors, insurance information, other health care providers is also a good idea so you can have it for routine future visits, or in an emergency situation.
- Look for tripping hazards like exposed electrical wires, unanchored rugs, etc. According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of death and injury for those over age 65. Furniture arrangements that were functional for many years may now need to be modified. If there is a lot of clutter, see if your parent would like you to help take items to thrift stores or otherwise dispose of them.
- If you get the chance to mingle with other relatives or neighbors, keep your ears open. They may have concerns and ideas to share with you regarding your parents’ welfare that they are hesitant to discuss directly with your folks.
Legal and Financial Issues
Even if your parents are fine now, they may need help eventually. Depending on how things are going, your visit is a good time to determine if they are legally prepared to have you (or others) handle their medical and financial decisions if they cannot do so. Does your parent have a valid, updated durable power of attorney? A health care surrogate? If you have been named in any of these documents, ask for a copy so you can provide it to financial institutions or medical providers if necessary.
Remember, once a person is incapacitated, it’s too late to execute these important documents, and taking care of mom or dad may mean petitioning for guardianship, an expensive and traumatizing process. If they do not have these important plans in place, see if they are amenable to making an appointment with an elder law attorney.
If your parents agree, it’s a good idea to get a handle on their financial situation, even if it’s just a rough overview. Can they give you information about income, Social Security, debts, property owned, monthly bills, and assets? This will be invaluable should you ever have to step in to handle financial matters.
Here are some that can help you and your parents identify the help they may need:
Area Agency on Aging (national eldercare database)