There’s no place like home for the holidays, where memories are thick, the food is delicious and happy gatherings raise the spirits.
And there’s no time like the holidays to check up on the folks back home, where memories could be jangled, Mom can no longer handle cooking a meal, or an older relative is suffering from mild depression, or worse.
Speaking at the annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America last month, Nancy Wilson of Baylor College of Medicine’s Huffington Center on Aging talked about the role of family members in watching out for their elderly relatives.
“We always see a spike in previously unrecognized dementia after the holidays,” Wilson said, “after family members reconnect. That’s when they notice changes.”
Mary Wasch, long-term care coordinator for Erie County’s Department of Senior Services, said her office sees an uptick in calls from out-of-town family members at this time of year.
“That happens around the holidays,” Wasch said. “They talk to Mom and Dad throughout the year and they say everything is fine, and then they get here and find everything is not fine.”
The situation is common enough that AARP has released a checklist for spotting trouble, including looking over the relative’s vehicle and garage for dents and dings, reviewing medications and finances, and seeing if their home is in good shape. Time away can make signs of decline more obvious.
“Families should watch for the extent that simple repairs around the house are being attended to – especially those creating risks and hazards,” said Dr. Evan Calkins of Hamburg, a pioneer in geriatric medicine.
Calkins, who retired about a year ago at age 92, said that his children appear to be following the recommendation of aging experts by taking turns visiting their parents regularly.
“Every five or six weeks they come and check the scene out,” Calkins said.
That’s because family visitors can notice problems that their elders have simply adjusted to.
When he was still practicing, Calkins said, it was normal for older patients to have someone accompany them for their medical appointments.
“If necessary, that relative might talk to me confidentially, but generally that wasn’t the case. We all would pretty well know what their main issues were and what they were trying to achieve,” he said.
Wilson, from Baylor, said it can be trickier when facing possible depression or the onset of dementia in a loved one. However, since depression is a significant factor in increased mortality, she said, it should not be ignored. Symptoms can include sleep problems, excessive fidgeting or an unusual lack of energy. Sufferers may be preoccupied with thoughts of death, or have trouble thinking clearly.
The Alzheimer’s Association has its own list of “10 warning signs” for the disease, and how to tell if the individual is getting ill or just experiencing normal, age-related changes.
For instance, memory loss that goes beyond forgetting names to the extent that the person asks the same things over and over; an inability to follow simple instructions; being confused over time and place; and having trouble following or taking part in conversations are all warning signs.
These conditions might lead sufferers to withdraw from holiday events. Alzheimer’s can also cause people to be anxious or suspicious, and the general confusion can make them easily upset.
Should any of these symptoms present themselves, or there are any other concerns, family should consider contacting their parent’s physician. Or, for day-to-day assistance, agencies serving the aging can help.
In Erie County, the Department of Senior Services’ information line – (716) 858-8526 – is staffed weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
“They can direct you to the right place,” Wasch said.
She noted that, no matter who makes the initial call, the senior would have to be willing to accept the offered services. And, while they can visit the Senior Services offices in the Rath Building downtown, there is an easier way to find assistance.
“A case manager will come to their home for a free, no obligation visit,” Wasch said. “Let me emphasize, it is free. They will do an assessment of what kinds of help the person might need or what they can use.”
For instance, she said, a person having mobility issues may need a home aide to help with laundry and cleaning; a dementia sufferer might need adult day care.
Erie County also is well-covered by a network of low-cost senior transport services, she said.
“Our goal at Senior Services is to keep people at home as long as it’s safely possible,” she said. “It could be that family has noticed their parent isn’t eating well. Maybe they only have frozen dinners in the house, or they are getting thinner.”
Solutions could include Meals on Wheels, regular deliveries of groceries, or making arrangements to get the person to one of the many area senior dining sites. “Even if they can’t do everything physically that they used to, there are many ways to get them back into the swing of things,” Wasch said. “And even if people don’t think they qualify for financial assistance, it’s a good idea to have the case manager come out, because it’s free of charge and it gives you a baseline to understand what your person might need, now and later.”