You may speak with your aging parent on the phone frequently, but COVID concerns have likely kept you away recently. Hopefully, you have the opportunity to visit this holiday season. Seeing your loved one in person is great for spending quality time, but you can also use it as a chance to assess their overall well-being.

While phone calls might clue you into issues with their mental state, visiting your parent’s home and seeing them in person allows you to dive deeper into their health and wellness. Take notice of both your loved one’s physical state and the condition of their living space. You want to be on the lookout for general safety concerns but also early warning signs of dementia. It’s often difficult to distinguish between normal aging and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Moreover, you want to ensure that your parent doesn’t require additional assistance or support. (Or if they do, that you can address that promptly).  

The following seven items should raise a red flag when visiting older parents. 

Changes in Your Parent

1. Balance and Mobility

While visiting, take note if your aging parent is wobbly on their feet, holds onto furniture to get around or is reluctant to move about. Additionally, make sure to ask about any scratches or bruises. Their injuries could be from a recent trip or fall, indicating a decline in mobility. This is even more concerning if your loved one cannot explain the bruising, showing a possible cognitive decline. While occasional clumsiness may not be of concern, the CDC reports that 1 in 5 falls results in serious injuries like broken bones or a head injury.

2. Hygiene

A change in your parent’s grooming standards should clue you in that something may be wrong. You may notice dirty clothes, greasy hair or body odor. Their unkempt appearance goes beyond just forgetting to brush their hair: lack of basic hygiene lets you know that something deeper is going on. Your parents could be unable to physically care for themself. Or, perhaps cognitive impairment has affected their ability to remember the need for daily grooming.

3. Weight Loss

Besides hygiene, unexplained weight loss could be a potential issue. Possible causes include depression, inability to shop for and prepare food, or a physical ailment. Research also shows that weight loss and loss of appetite are early warning signs of dementia. No matter the cause, weight loss in an older adult is cause for concern, or at the very least, further investigation.

4. Mood and Behavior

Beyond examining your parent’s physical appearance, pay attention to their overall mood and behavior. Speaking to your loved one regularly may not reveal their emotional state, like spending time in person. Red flags include mood swings, signs of depression and anxiety or loss of interest in their hobbies. Depression is not a normal part of aging but instead can lead to a decline in overall health. Additionally, unexplained mood swings and agitation are common symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Changes in Their Living Space

5. General Home Environment

As you spend time in your parent’s home, look for changes in their overall living space. Take notice of anything different from their usual standards. For example, if your loved one has always been a tidy person, an abundance of clutter should raise a red flag. Additionally, tripping hazards, appliances left on, scorched cookware or overflowing laundry might be a cause for concern. These might indicate a cognitive decline or that your parent needs some help with day-to-day tasks.

6. Expired (or Lack of) Food

Take a look at your parents’ pantry, cupboards and refrigerator. They should be stocked with food that’s not spoiled or expired. Expired goods or lack of food are signs that your loved one is not taking care of themself. Maintaining a nutritious diet is imperative for aging adults’ health. Additionally, research shows that nutrition and cognition are closely tied and that malnourishment often precedes the onset of dementia.

7. Stacks of Unopened Mail

Excessive amounts of unopened mail at your parent’s home are indications that they need assistance. For example, if you find overdue bills, overdraft notices, or letters from collection agencies, this could signal a need for help. Apathy regarding important documents could mean anything ranging from dementia and memory loss to depression and inability to manage finances. Probe your parents to find out what is going on: perhaps they are extra busy during the holiday season or are overwhelmed with daily chores and their home’s upkeep.  

Assess Your Parent’s Well-Being During an Upcoming Visit

Many older adults aim to maintain their independence by living alone. If you notice any red flags while visiting your loved one, it may be time to seek help. Note that declining health can happen quickly. If you haven’t visited recently, you could be startled by your parent’s condition. If necessary, take time to discuss your concerns and their overall care before their health further declines.

Checking up on your parents for symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia should be a regular task, not just for the holiday season. Use this list of tips whenever you visit an aging loved one to ensure they’re healthy and safe. 

Further resources: 

If you have senior health concerns or questions, please feel free to reach out to your nearest Vineyard community. Additionally, if you want to start the conversation about transitioning a parent to senior living, we’re here to support you in that journey!