Long-Distance Caregivers: Things to Look for During Holiday Visits with Seniors

In a recent study conducted by the National Alliance of Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, 15 percent of the estimated 34 million Americans who provide care to older family members live an hour or more away from their care recipient. This means that a significant number of caregivers rely on regular telephone conversations and check-ins by other closer-living relatives to gauge an aging loved one’s well-being.

Unfortunately, age-related decline can happen quickly, and in many cases, seniors are skilled at concealing new and worsening problems. For many of these families, holiday visits are the only opportunity for them to observe their loved one in person, so it’s important to pay close attention to their physical and mental health and their living situation.

During this year’s holiday gatherings, be sure to look for the following warning signs that a loved one may need some extra help.

Weight Loss
One of the most obvious signs of ill health, either physical or mental, is weight loss. Possible causes could be cancer, dementia, or depression. Seniors may also experience reduced energy, which can make it challenging to shop for and prepare a nutritious meal as well as clean up afterwards. Furthermore, all this effort can seem especially unnecessary if they live and eat alone. Certain medications and aging in general can also change the way food tastes. If weight loss is evident, talk to your loved one about your concerns and schedule a doctor’s visit to address the issue.

Changes in Balance & Mobility
Pay close attention to the way your loved one moves and how they walk. A reluctance to walk, changes in gait or obvious pain during movement can be a sign of joint, muscle, or neurological problems. If your loved one is unsteady on their feet, they may be at risk of falling, which can cause severe injury or worse. If you notice changes in their mobility and coordination, make an appointment with their doctor to discuss options to keep them safe and mobile, such as pain management, physical therapy, and mobility aids.

Emotional Well-Being
Keep an eye out for changes in your loved one’s moods and behavior. You can’t always gauge someone’s emotional state over the telephone, even if you speak on a daily basis. Look for signs of anxiety, including withdrawal from social activities, changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in hobbies, and changes in basic home maintenance and personal hygiene. The latter can be an indicator of dementia or other physical ailments like dehydration, which often happens to elders in the winter months and can be serious. If you notice sudden odd behavior in your loved one, such as confusion or agitation, be sure to seek medical attention. These are common symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI), which is prevalent in seniors and easily resolved with antibiotics.

Home Environment
Attention must also be paid to a senior’s surroundings. For instance, if your loved one has always been a stickler for neatness and paying bills promptly, but you discover excess clutter and piles of unopened mail while visiting, it indicates a problem. Take a walk-through of their home while you’re visiting to see if they are keeping their house to the usual standards. Be aware that sometimes the signs of trouble are a bit more subtle. Scorched cookware could indicate that your loved one forgets food on the stove or in the oven, and an overflowing clothes hamper could mean they don’t have the strength and/or desire to do laundry. Be sure to check the expiration dates on their prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Also make sure they’re taking their medications as prescribed. You know your loved one and their habits best, so go with your gut if something seems off.

How to Handle Signs of Decline
While you may want to keep things light during the holiday season, do take this opportunity to address any red flags you observe. Collect any necessary information while you are in town to avoid any added frustration and confusion in the event of a crisis down the road.

The Initial Conversation
First, have a heart-to-heart conversation with your loved one about their present circumstances and any concerns you may have. Suggest making an appointment with their primary care physician for a complete health assessment. The results of this evaluation will help you both determine what the next possible steps are may be necessary to keep your loved one safe, happy, and healthy.

Identify Supportive Resources
If possible, visit your local Department of Aging office. In the Eau Claire area, this would be the Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC). Their office is located in the Eau Claire County Courthouse complex in Eau Claire. They are an excellent contact for information on resources and services available in the area. While it may be more difficult to arrange a face-to-face meeting with one of their Options Counselors during the holidays, it is still worth reaching out or leaving a message by phone at either: 715-839-4735 or 888-338-4636. You can also visit their website at: https://www.co.eau-claire.wi.us/departments/departments-a-k/aging-disability-resource-center to research the services they offer.

Sit down with your loved one to create a current list of people they interact with on a regular basis. This list should include friends, neighbors, and clergy who you trust to keep an eye on your loved one and you can contact in the event of an emergency. Double-check their addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses, and…be sure to share your own contact information with them.

Prepare a To-Do List
Now is the time to begin compiling a To-Do List that can be implemented over a period of future visits. There are three categories to this list: medical, financial, and legal.

Medical: You’ll want to develop a complete medical record for your loved one, including their health conditions, prescriptions, and their doctors’ names and contact information. This is extremely helpful for you to have on file, and your loved one can keep a condensed copy on hand for both routine appointments and medical emergencies. Have you arranged to have a health care Power of Attorney (POA)? Information regarding this document as it pertains to Wisconsin residents can be found at: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/forms/advdirectives/f00085.pdf.

Financial: A financial list should contain all of a loved one’s property ownership, debts, income, expenses, and bank account and credit card information. This list will help minimize confusion and ensure all their bills are paid on time.

Legal: The legal aspect of this To-Do List is possibly the most important. There are vital documents that must be obtained to ensure you can access your loved one’s medical information, make health and financial decisions in case they become incapacitated and administer their estate. If they have not already done so, it is crucial for your loved one to meet with an attorney to draw up medical and financial power of attorney (POA) documents and a will. You should have access these documents and other important information, such as their social security number, Medicare information, insurance policies, the deed to their home (if applicable), and their driver’s license (if he/she is still driving).

All of these preparations may seem excessive, but it is better to be over-prepared then caught off guard when a loved one’s care needs suddenly increase. Throughout this process, remember to empower them to control their own life as much as possible. You may receive some resistance, but remind your loved one that sharing this information and pursuing supportive resources will enable them to remain independent and safe in their own home and give you added peace of mind as you return home from your holiday visit.