Trust your gut

It’s the time you’ve looked forward to all year…the holidays. As you happily walk through the door of your parents’ home, ready for your favorite home-cooked holiday dishes and time spent laughing with loved ones, you look past the few colorful Christmas lights in the living room and notice that something is not quite right. Your parents aren’t looking as vibrant as they sound on the phone when you have your weekly call. Their usually tidy home isn’t as neat as they’ve always kept it. Your gut tells you that there’s cause for concern, and more than likely… you’re probably right.

For aging parents, it can be tough to admit, or even recognize that their ability to take care of themselves is in decline. And since you live a few hours away, you aren’t there as often as you’d like to be to keep an eye on things. The holidays become your opportunity to dig a little deeper and see for yourself how your parents are really doing if you know what to look for. By paying close attention to a few key areas, you can find out where mom and dad might use some extra help.

Your parents

The first and most obvious place to look is at your parents themselves. Are there any noticeable changes in their hygiene? Are their clothes clean and is their hair combed? Are their teeth brushed and their skin clean? Have they dressed appropriately for the weather? We love our seasons here in Indiana, but the change in temperatures can be tougher on our seniors if they aren’t prepared for them. If you notice any of these changes in their appearance, it’s likely that they are struggling to perform the basic functions of daily self-care.

Also, be on the lookout for anything that might signal even deeper physical and mental decline. If you noticed a significant amount of weight loss as soon as they greeted you at the door, or if they are having difficulty with speech, mobility, or balance while serving up the holiday turkey, it’s time to schedule an appointment with their doctor as soon as possible.

And how is their behavior? Is your normally outgoing and upbeat mom acting sullen and withdrawn? Is she picking at the green bean casserole on her plate even though it’s normally her favorite dish that she always goes back for seconds for? Any of these behaviors could signal a serious problem such as depression.

The home

Paying attention to the environment around you can also give you many clues about how well your parents are functioning on their own…if you know where to look. More obvious signs of a problem include excessive clutter, dishes piling up in the sink, dust and dirt covering surfaces in the home, or a hamper overflowing with dirty laundry. But don’t forget to look closer for other subtle signs like dents or scratches on the car that’s parked in the garage, or expired and moldy food in the fridge. The type of foods in the fridge can also give you a hint about what kind of diet your parents are eating when you’re not around. If it’s not a balanced one, it is probably contributing to their mental and physical decline.


Now is a good time to check the medications that your parents might be taking. Is their medicine cabinet full of expired ones? Was the prescription filled months ago, but is the bottle still full? Ask your parents how they keep track of what they’re taking and when the last time their doctor was able to monitor how everything was working. If weight loss was something you noticed in your parents earlier, their medication might need to be adjusted to lessen the side effects they might be experiencing. And most importantly, check to see which doctor and pharmacy are connected to each medication. If there are multiple doctors and pharmacies, there is an increased risk of a negative interaction between medications that no one might be aware of.

Start the conversation

When there are obvious signs that your parents are having trouble taking care of themselves, it’s time to have a conversation about the next steps. You can first suggest a visit to their primary physician to make sure that any immediate health needs are addressed. From there, if you have already planted the seed about assisted living, this is the time to revisit the idea with the new information you’ve gathered from your visit. If the subject has never been broached, this is the time to share your concerns with your parents about what you’ve noticed and mention the option of getting some extra care support.

Finding the right solution might not happen overnight, but it’s important to get the conversation going. And the benefit of the holidays is that you and your parents don’t have to do it alone. With the support of visiting family members, you can explore every avenue and work together to take the next best step for mom and dad.