The winter holidays are a perfect time to reminisce about the lifetime of memories our parents have given us. These days also highlight how our family roles change over time, especially for adult children who begin to look after their older parents. When grown children come home for the holidays for the first time in a long time, it’s an opportunity to assess how the current living situation is working for older parents, and particularly those who live by themselves.
According to a recent report in the Ohio Department of Aging, more than a quarter of Ohioans ages 65 and older were identified as living alone. While this works well for many, living alone can also make it difficult to access care, and for providers to deliver care. It can also be highly isolating.
Through my work in senior living, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with adult children about how safe and fulfilling their parents’ living situations are. Over and over again, the top indicators come up – sometimes obvious, but often more subtle. Knowing what to look for can bring a moment of revelation for the entire family.
Bruising or scratches that cannot easily be explained are the most visible signs. These can tell us if the adult parent may be falling. The loved one may not think to mention it on a phone call. But when an adult child is home for the holidays, big bruises can’t be missed.
Bruises can be caused by a simple lack of mobility. If Mom or Dad are shuffling their feet, or leaning heavily on furniture when they walk, they may be more susceptible to a fall. Living alone may mean they’re not accessing physical therapy to maintain mobility.
Falls are very dangerous when living alone and can lead to difficult family decisions. Anyone who has a broken hip or is otherwise unable to support their own weight may not be able to go into assisted living until after undergoing physical rehabilitation. In these cases, the family may think a nursing home is the only viable housing option.
Other signals, like repeating words or confusion in physical spaces, could be an early indicator of memory loss. Do your older parents have pets? Poor pet care could show diminished physical ability or mental difficulty. Sometimes an older person will feed their pet part of their food to save buying pet food if they can’t get out.
Are they eating peanut butter crackers for dinner? Are they losing weight? An empty refrigerator can be a window into nutritional patterns. Simple foods are easy to make and don’t require cooking, and if there is memory loss, simple food may be all they can remember to make. It’s a good idea to look for outdated food in the refrigerator and pantry. Vision difficulty makes it hard to see those dates or mold on food.
Perhaps most importantly, adult children home for the holidays should check on how well their parents are socializing. Isolation can take its toll, as nine of every ten senior citizens who are isolated are also suffering from some type of depression.
I’m a firm believer that even if you’re physically cared for, lack of socialization leads to a dramatically lesser quality of life. Have they stopped going to church? Are they engaged in any social activities during the week? Have they stopped playing cards or coffee with friends? We should make sure our parents can continue living these experiences, which add joy and a sense of belonging, especially if they live alone.
Looking for warning signals when parents are stable and not in a medical emergency gives the entire family a chance to make choices proactively, away from urgent pressure and deadlines. On the other hand, if none of these warning signs surface, it should be great news, reassuring a family that may be separated by distance that everyone can focus on building more memories in the future and ensuring older parents continue to get the most out of life.