It happens after every holiday season, as surely as the beginning of the new year and the change of the calendar. While other businesses start the year with a bit of a post-Christmas lull, those whose work is serving older people scramble to keep up with the phones and emails.
Here’s what happens: Grown children go home and find changes in the health of their aging parents, changes that concern them. “It’s different for everyone,” said Beth Barber, marketing director for the Lodge at Old Trail. “They might be alarmed at their personal appearance, the state of their home, the accumulation of unopened mail.”
It can be a heartbreaking realization, the recognition that Mom and Dad aren’t coping too well. “Often, it’s most obvious to the relatives who don’t see them often,” said Ginger Dillard, director of advocacy for JABA (Jefferson Area Board on Aging) the agency that provides information and support for older adults, people with disabilities, and family caregivers in Central Virginia, including Crozet and Albemarle County.
Mike Williams, CEO and founder of the English Meadows Senior Living, the company that now owns the former Mountainside, said that the 2 1/2-month period between Thanksgiving and February accounts for 30 percent of the inquiries from potential residents and their families.
Ellen Phipps, director of Aging Together, a coalition of aging services providers serving five rural Virginia counties, said she fielded calls last January from one son who noticed that his mother didn’t change her clothes for three days; and another who was appalled at the amount of spoiled food still in residence in his dad’s refrigerator.
Sometimes, children just have an uneasy feeling that “something’s wrong,” JABA’S Dillard said. If you’re unsure of how to assess your parent’s situation, local experts have some specific things to look for:
• Personal hygiene. There are obvious clues, like the woman mentioned above who didn’t change her clothes for three days. Others can be more subtle, as small as a declining interest in personal appearance by someone who previously never appeared in public without being perfectly groomed.
• Home in disarray. “This is different for everybody,” Barber said. “Obviously, if someone is normally relaxed about housekeeping, this isn’t such a cause for concern, but if they’ve always been tidy, you should take notice.”
• Weight loss or gain. “This is significant,” Dillard said. “It could have a physical cause, or could signal depression. Check the refrigerator, check the cupboards, get some idea of how your parent’s eating habits have changed.” Also check medications that might affect mood or appetite.
• Paper piling up. Although we all may experience this at times, this can be an early warning sign, kind of like the canary in the coal mine, that things are just becoming too much. “Sometimes, they’ve just stopped processing the mail,” Barber said. Paying bills may intimidate them, or they may feel they lack the judgment to correctly handle each piece of paper that comes into the house. “Or this may be part of a growing problem with hoarding,” Dillard said. “Look for unread newspapers, too, especially if they’ve always had a habit of reading the news.”
• Changes in mood. “It’s disappointing for children to see that a parent is not interested in something they loved to do before,” Barber said. “One common example is that of a parent who loved to cook and has given it up.” Loneliness and depression are not minor concerns that an aging relative will “get over,” Williams said: “We now know that these problems are as detrimental to health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, maybe more.”
What can you do?
Barber and Dillard said that families usually make it through the holidays without addressing their concerns, and typically start looking for help and advice later in January. “It’s like they don’t want to spoil the holidays with anything potentially unpleasant,” Barber said.
Dillard agrees that this happens, but she cautions people not to avoid the conversation. “The very best thing is to sit down with your parents as soon as you’ve noticed the changes.” She acknowledged that this is sometimes easier said than done. “I’ve been doing this for many years, so I have no problem with it,” she said. She emphasizes the importance of making it a respectful conversation. “Contrary to what people like to say, we don’t have two childhoods––only one––and always remember that your parent is an adult, with adult experiences.”
She asks people to be mindful that their point of view may be different from those of their siblings, especially if one of them lives nearby, and the others come from afar. “You may find it hard to believe that your parent can live safely without driving, but he or she may have worked that out already. Sometimes, grown children don’t communicate enough to understand that one of them has been providing frequent transportation and believes everything is under control.” It’s enormously important that families work together and share information, always including the elderly person as well.
JABA has a variety of services that help elderly people stay in their homes. Community centers provide educational as well as recreational activities in addition to meals, and there are two in Nelson County. While some services, like the home-delivered meals, are based on income, JABA offers other services to the wider community. Families worried about their elders can start with options counseling, Dillard said, where an experienced social worker will point them towards ways to solve the problems of household chores, transportation, and adequate nutrition. Families and individuals perplexed by insurance and estate issues can also find expert advice through JABA, and older people with chronic disease can join others in free classes on disease management.
Those caring for a parent with dementia at home can find respite on a daily or occasional basis at one of the two adult day care centers JABA operates.
Sometimes even the best-organized community-based strategies are no longer enough. Williams said this also becomes apparent during the holidays. “Sometimes an aging parent will wait until children or grandchildren visit to help them get to a doctor’s appointment,” he said. “We have instances where the doctor will take the family members aside to let them know it’s no longer safe for their mother or father to be at home.” Other dramatic examples are a series of falls, or fires, or a sudden or gradual lack of awareness of where they are or where they left their car.
Although these cases usually involve an individual, there are also examples involving couples. “We see aging caregivers who simply can’t continue with the physical burden of taking care of their partner,” he said. “They look for safety and support in a community.”
A third example is the person who is completely alone. The family’s far away and he or she may be suffering from a lack of support and stimulation.
In these cases, Williams has some advice on finding a suitable retirement community. “I know people care about the cleanliness, the quality of the food, and the size of the rooms,” he said. “All of these are important, but if it were my parent, I would take staff members aside and ask questions. Don’t just talk to the people who are trying to sell you on the place. Look to the servers, the aides, the people visiting their family members.”