Home for the holidays: What to look for when visiting your parents

(BPT) – The holidays are for more than talking turkey. While it’s a chance to spend precious time with your parents, for long distance caregivers, it’s also an opportunity to see how Mom and Dad are coping on their own.

Maybe they’re thriving, or maybe they’re not. Maybe they need to make changes to continue to live independently. Does Dad’s personal hygiene seem off? Is his walking precarious? Are the stairs well lit? Does Mom take her medication on time? Why are there dents in her car?

With a face-to-face visit, there’s plenty you can glean about your parents’ house, mental and physical health, finances and more. Here are some things to look for:

Their house

1. What does the place look like? Is it neat or full of clutter (and tripping potential)? Are there broken appliances or burned out lights? Is the house (and bathroom) clean?

2. Check mail and voice messages. Do you see unpaid bills, overdue notices or bounced checks? Are there calls from bill collectors? Make sure they’re opening their mail. It’s a good time to broach mail, phone and handyman scams.

3. Open the refrigerator. Is it well stocked or far from it? Does the food seem fresh or moldy?


* If the house doesn’t work anymore, can you make it work? Maybe you can convert the den on the first floor into a bedroom (provided there’s a bathroom) or put in a chair lift. Do they need a walk-in shower? Aging in Place specialists can assess the house and recommend modifications. It may be as simple as removing loose rugs. Or, does it make more sense to move somewhere else?

* Could Mom use a house cleaner, a part-time caregiver to cook meals or a grocery delivery service?

* If bills are late or they’re having trouble balancing their checkbook, should you or a sibling pay them online?

* If you feel you should be better connected with your parent, there’s technology for safety and security, health and wellness and care coordination, among others.

Their physical and mental health

1. How do your parents look? Do they seem to be taking care of themselves? Are they disheveled or showered and put together?

2. Have they lost weight or seem frail? Is there unexplained bruising (falling, medication, a caregiver)? Do they have a hard time getting up from a chair or their bed or getting around?

3. Does Dad seem cognitively sharp? Is he forgetting or repeating things? Does he act confused when he’s performing simple tasks or have trouble following conversations?

4. Is Mom taking her medication? There may be multiple pills for different times of day. Does she have a good system for organizing and refilling them, and reminding her when it’s time for a dose? Are her prescriptions up to date?

5. What is her mood? Does she seem engaged in activities and life or withdrawn and depressed?


* If you have doubts about your parent’s physical, emotional or cognitive health, confer with their doctor. Consider hiring an aging life care professional (formerly known as a geriatric care manager) to assess the situation, help coordinate medical appointments, and introduce you to resources in their area (i.e. senior day programs, memory care programs). Should Mom have a medical alert-type device, like a PERS (personal emergency response system) she can wear around her neck, on his wrist or keep in her purse?

* Check out the many medication management products that make it easy to keep track of, and take, pills. Some pharmacies and companies will package them by the day and deliver them. There are “smart” pill boxes that let a parent know when it’s time to take medicine, remind them if they still haven’t taken it, and even notify you if they still haven’t done it.

Their driving

1. If they own a car, what shape is it in? Are there dents? Is there gas in the tank?

2. Can you take a drive with them and see how they do? If you doubt their skills, an online or in-person assessment test or a refresher course could help. Or, maybe they should get off the road altogether.

3. Could they be driving the wrong model and need one better suited for their age? Would a different car be easier to get in and out of?


* Before that driving talk, research other options to get around. Don’t just tell them they can no longer drive. There are many public and private options.

Their social connections

1. Do your parents seem isolated and lonely?

2. Do they leave the house for a meal, a movie, a visit with a friend or a community day care program?

3. If they’re hesitant to go out, think about why. Are they afraid to drive or take other transportation? It might be hard to get around due to mobility, hearing or sight issues.

4. When they’re home, do they connect with family or the outside world through the phone, internet and/or social media?

5. Is there someone new and ever-present in their life who might have befriended them for opportunistic reasons?


* Think technology! Feeling connected to others is the key to well being. Video chats connect grandchildren and grandparents wherever they live. So does instant text messaging and email. Families can stay in touch by sharing music, videos and photos.

* If Dad can’t make it to a senior center, he might be able to participate virtually via a hookup screen. If he doesn’t have a ride to the senior center, you or they can hail a pre-paid driver on such phone apps as Uber or Lyft.

* There are plenty of resources to get your parent up to speed on technology, both in-person and online; some devices are geared specifically to seniors.

The Family Caregiver Council, made up of national experts in the field, has a website that offers advice and resources for all of these issues.

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