It’s that time of year. The time to drive through neighborhoods admiring brightly decorated homes on a brisk night. The time to shop for that perfect gift for the special people in our lives. The time to enjoy the company of our loved ones while seated near a roaring fire, warm beverage in hand.
And, for those whose company includes older adult loved ones, now is also the time to be watchful for signs that they need extra assistance, especially during those holiday visits.
It’s something I see and recommend in my work as the gerontological social worker at The Helm at The Boll Life Center in Grosse Pointe Farms, which is a nonprofit senior community center.
In particular, I recommend being on the lookout for changes in eating habits, drivers safety, mobility and signs and symptoms of dementia and depression.
Here are some suggestions for what to watch out for when it comes to aging parents during the holiday season.
1. Eating habits
Is an older loved one not eating as much as usual? This is not always cause for alarm, but in combination with other changes in eating habits, it may be time to seek help.
Warning signs of unhealthy eating habits can include significant weight loss, limited food in the home, an empty refrigerator or plethora of expired food.
2. Driving habits
Minor traffic accidents are common life occurrences, but there are signs that indicate growing challenges with drivers safety that may point to increased concern.
New dents or scratches on a vehicle or garage, recent traffic violations and nervousness to drive previously frequented freeways or busier roads can signal cause for alarm. In addition, eyesight, peripheral vision and reaction time diminish as we age.
Driving can be a delicate subject for many older adults. Some may feel they are being stripped of their independence when their ability to drive is questioned. When discussing matters such as driving, emphasize that the concern comes from a place of caring and love.
3. Mobility and balance
Noticeable changes in a loved one’s mobility or balance can signal they are beginning to experience some age-related challenges. This could include limping, holding onto furniture or walls while walking, shuffling or difficulty transitioning from a seated to standing position.
A cane, walker, grab bars or other aids can assist loved ones with balance and stability. To some older adults, using these aids may make them feel they are losing independence, but it’s a way to maintain independence and curb the risk of falling.
4. Cognitive and emotional well-being
Recognizing the difference between dementia and normal aging can be difficult.
Being forgetful from time to time – missing a month’s payment, forgetting a word in a conversation – are normal. Missing multiple payments, having difficulty maintaining conversation and confusion performing or completing familiar tasks can be signs of dementia.
Depression also can cause some of these symptoms, as well as difficulty getting out of bed or ready for the day and isolating oneself. If any of these symptoms are evident, it’s time to visit a doctor or geriatrician.
5. The next steps
Community senior centers like The Helm offer classes for older adults to maintain their independence. Classes like tai chi or yoga can help with walking and stability issues. Lectures about healthy eating or heart health can help improve nutrition and overall health. Social activities like card games, lunch and movies help alleviate isolation and the winter blues.
We love our nanas, papas, moms and dads. This holiday season and beyond, we can support them by fostering an environment and relationship that helps them maintain their dignity, independence and happiness.
Allie Short, MSW, is the gerontological social worker at The Helm at The Boll Life Center, a nonprofit, non-residential senior community center in Grosse Pointe Farms. She earned a master of social work and graduate certificate in gerontology from Wayne State University.