The smell of baked goods wafts through the halls, the decorations from when you were a kid are making their annual appearance, and Michael Bublé croons in the background, maybe a little bit too loudly.
While the holidays are filled with cheer, joyous anticipation, and happy memories about to be made, this is also a time to take a moment for some serious reflection about your aging loved ones’ well-being. Mom seems alright, but are there warning letters in the mail from unpaid bills? Is she hiding unexpected weight loss? Is she actually doing okay since your dad passed or is she just saying she’s fine to save you the burden?
The holidays are a time when most Americans travel to be together, so not only are you able to check more closely on your loved ones, but you also likely have your siblings, cousins, spouses, or other chosen family to get a second opinion.
Here are 15 simple ways to assess the wellbeing of the older loved ones in your life across physical, mental, environmental, and financial health while you’re home for the holidays.
Physical Health Check-in
1. Check the TV Volume.
Watch a little TV together. How is the volume? According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "older adults with greater severity of hearing loss were more likely to have dementia, but the likelihood of dementia was lower among hearing aid users compared to non-users." If you find that the TV is blasting, pay attention to how your loved one is participating in conversations. The potential awkwardness of a conversation about hearing aids is worth preventing a higher risk of memory problems.
2. Look for Changes in Fitness Levels.
Go for a walk with your loved one, or maybe a short hike, depending on their fitness and lifestyle to-date. Does their speed, breathing, or general movement seem different from how it used to be? Are they showing any visible signs of discomfort? This is also a good opportunity to ask about their regular exercise schedule, physical therapy visits, or any exercise routines they may do in group classes.
3. Check for Red Flags While Driving.
If your loved one still drives, have them drive you to pick up an ingredient for one of the holiday recipes. The route to the grocery store is one that should be very comfortable, and gives you a glimpse into what is likely their most comfortable driving habits. Depending on your situation and what you already know about any eyesight issues, you may opt to do a drive in both the daytime and nighttime conditions. Some red flags to look out for include not being able to read traffic signs, an inability to stay within the lines, or forgetting where they’re going. Luckily, in this day and age, if your elderly loved one is no longer able to drive themselves, there are alternative options.
4. Inquire About Their Favorite Doctor.
How's Dr. Jacobson these days? If she's retiring, a new doctor is certainly in order, but most importantly, this is a question to confirm that your loved one is going to regular checkups. Follow up to find out more about the specialists your loved one is seeing (or should be seeing), and the medications they're taking.
5. Taste All the Usual Family Recipes
First of all, because you can! You talk about them, you look forward to them every year, you try to copy them, you marvel at how Grandma makes them look so easy to make. Is that still the case? Does anything seem different this year? The quantity, the recipe, the taste? What about your loved one - are they eating like they used to? Enjoy the treats, make a mental note, and take the opportunity to again ask the master chef how to make your favorite family dishes.
If you find any significant changes in your loved ones’ memory, driving abilities, or other familiar actions, it’s probably time to consider joining doctors appointments. If you don’t live close by, you could request a remote appointment and join on video chat. There are some simple ways to make things easier such as getting an Amazon Alexa and setting up a verbal pill reminder, getting groceries delivered every week, or downloading daily brain exercises that have been proven to help with mental sharpness. Just make sure to involve your loved one in trying to find solutions to these health concerns so they don’t feel patronized or less independent.
Mental Health Check-in
6. Play a Familiar Game.
Chess, checkers, cards, charades - whatever brings the smiles out! Look for any unusual quietness, confusion, or any other changes in behavior since the last time you’ve played.
7. Reminisce About the Past.
The time you took that trip. Or maybe that time you talked about that movie. How is your loved one's memory of the event or the conversation? If you're not frequently in the neighborhood, check in with a family member who visits more frequently to make sure they haven't noticed any changes.
8. Ask About the Neighborhood Friends.
Revel in the gossip, smile at the antics, and acknowledge quickly if there is a lack of activities and contact with friends. Aging can be very lonely and isolating, and the health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Because loneliness is not only tied to mental health, but also to physical health, it’s very important to make sure you get accurate information about your loved one’s social life. Are they still going to their book club, church, or synagogue? Can you take a peek at their calendar and see if they have had plans the last few months? Since asking directly is typically met with “I’m fine,” it’s essential to do your own research to find out the truth.
If you do discover that your loved one is struggling with mental health issues stemming from social isolation, it’s time to have a conversation with your family about how to visit or have them visit more often. Call their friends in the neighborhood and ask that they take your loved one to dinner once a week. Check out the community opportunities for senior-child mentorship programs. You can sign them up for various clubs and activities at a local center, but it’s better for them to select the activities themselves to have a higher chance of actually engaging. This will be a tough process but could save your loved one’s life.
Environmental Health Check-in
9. Walk Around the Property.
Check the outside area of their home. Is the exterior of your loved one's home properly lit? Are the walkways clear? Have leaves been raked or are they a fall risk? Take note of the condition of their home and any possible safety dangers.
10. Pretend You're a Robot Vacuum.
If you were gliding around the floor, would you be able to get around without getting stuck, especially in walking areas? Are there webs of cords that pose tripping risks, or maybe even fire hazards? Is the floor slippery or uneven? Are any spaces cluttered or dark?
11. Inspect the Fridge.
Planning, prepping, cooking, and eating are part of the holiday fun, but they're often an increasingly arduous chore with age. How is your loved one keeping their belly full after the holiday leftovers are gone? When you look in the refrigerator and pantry, is there food beyond the holiday cooking ingredients? Are the expiration dates valid? Are there healthy options, fruits and vegetables in particular? Does anything look moldy or smell past its intended lifespan?
12. Visit Their Bathroom.
Objectively, how clean is the bathroom? Are the toothbrushes in good condition? Are there any cobbled together contraptions for using or sitting in the tub? Conversely, should there be some modifications to help your loved one's bathroom usage?
The CDC, having conducted bathroom fall research across American emergency departments, warns that, "All persons, but especially older adults, should be aware of bathroom activities that are associated with a high risk for injury and of environmental modifications that might reduce that risk." Something as simple as placing a non-slip mat, switching out slippers, or installing a classic grab bar is a small action that may be the difference between independence and an emergency room visit.
13. Test Emergency Communications.
Depending on your loved one's technology comfort, they may have a cell phone. If not, and even if they do, consider whether a medical alert system may be needed. Especially if your loved one lives alone, you want to ensure they always have a way to communicate in case of an emergency.
You may get push back from your family member, understandably so, since this is a way some people believe they are losing independence. Try to be understanding and start out with something less extreme, like only wearing a pendant or watch overnight. Or an agreement to have a before-bed and wake-up text or call. If you don’t hear from them, you can call 911.
A simple home modification can save someone from a broken hip, which often leads to later hospitalizations and sky-high financial costs, not to mention the increased social isolation. If you observe a lawn that is not kept, a kitchen that’s moldy, or a makeshift dangerous bathroom railing, it’s time to step in and help. There are contractors who specifically work on home safety modifications that can be hired for this sort of work. You can also ask your local Area Agency on Aging for references.
Financial Health Check-in
14.Check for Unpaid and Overpaid Bills.
Examine the mail and living spaces for any overlooked or unpaid bills or notices, ensuring that financial responsibilities are up to date. If you can, log in to online banking and make sure there is enough cash to pay, so you can assess whether the unpaid bill is a memory issue or something more financially serious.
Often a loved one will also get frauded by a door-to-door vitamin salesman, or a charity convinces them to give more than they can afford. There are also elder scams that are growing in number every year with the recent increase in AI function. It’s almost impossible to tell if a pop-up on your screen is really from Microsoft or a fraudster.
If daily cash management is causing concern, you may want to replace your loved one’s credit cards with a True Link card, which can be set to only allow purchases within certain limits and send you notifications when dubious spending patterns arise.
15. Make a Plan for the Future With Your Loved One.
Think about the future holidays. Maybe it's now, and maybe the need is less immediate, but your loved one needs a financial plan for their future care. Where will they be living as their health declines? What kind of daily help do they need already? Have you asked them these questions? Do you know their preferences, should something happen? Most elderly people want to stay in their homes, and understandably so. Will your loved one and your family have the funds needed to make this happen?
This is a crucial moment when failing to plan is planning to fail. The New York Times reports that "half of the nation’s assisted-living facilities cost at least $54,000 a year," and home care agencies "charge about $27 an hour for a home health aide." Speak to your loved one, speak to the rest of your family, and explore the financial options and avenues your family has to maximize health, comfort, and independence.
Remember to approach these conversations with patience and empathy.
It can be difficult to talk about sensitive topics, such as health and finances, especially with older adults. Make your loved one feel as comfortable as possible in talking to you. Make them feel respected and heard instead of confronted and patronized.
We speak from experience. Wellahead was created when our founder and CEO Jason van den Brand was faced with caring for both his ailing Dad and Grandmother. Their wishes were to age in their homes, but the unexpected result of living longer lives was the lack of cash-on-hand to pay for the care needed to do so comfortably.
Navigating elder financial health is an extremely overwhelming process. Wellahead’s marketplace provides families with navigation tools to access home equity and understand what options are best for their loved ones to both get the care they need while not having to leave home unwillingly. Wellahead’s goal is to ease the mental and financial burden for your family member to get in-home care and other needs as they age.
Get in touch with our team to learn which options you and your family have to add home equity to your list of tools for elder care funding.