We all get a little bit older each year. It’s easy to notice the gray hairs and belly lines on your own body — after all, those aching joints now and then are a timely reminder that things are not necessarily the same. But when your parents live further away, it’s easy to forget that they’re changing, too. Eventually, they may need more help than you’re aware of right now. How can you tell?
1. Conversations are more disjointed. Do they have trouble consistently remembering addresses and names? We all do some of this – it’s called absentmindedness. Calling them regularly, even if only for a few minutes, will give you a more consistent picture of their verbal skills. (And they’ll love the regular contact!) If your parent consistently forgets family names, shows confusion or is vague about their general activities, it might be time to make a visit. While you’re there, take a moment to quietly glance at their mail. You may notice:
2. Unpaid notices are evident for bills. More sweepstakes-type items are in the pile. Is it that money is short…or they’ve just forgotten to pay? Also, a plethora of sweepstakes and other “you’ve-just-won” notices may be a sign that your folks have responded to a scammer. (Once they do, their contact information may well have been sold to a mailing list, which will just generate more ‘opportunities.’) If you’re lucky, your parents have already figured out it’s a scam. If not, you can see if:
3. Bank accounts are overdrawn…or property taxes are not paid. This is a tough one, because you’re going to have to ask. An even better way: offer to be a co-signer on your parents’ accounts — that way, if they’re suddenly incapacitated, you can easily step in to help. (It also lets you discreetly check for irregularities.) If they’re reluctant to let you do this, they can always appoint a fiduciary, instead.
Tax payments are easier – because those are a matter of public record. Our county’s records for properties are even online, and can be easily accessed. You may have to make a trip to the county assessor’s while you’re visiting at your folks’ house. But then again, you’ll also want to see if:
4. The refrigerator and freezer are bare, and the living area is increasingly cluttered. Is your mom having trouble vacuuming, cleaning or cooking? Many states have home health care programs, meant to help keep people at home, and out of nursing facilities. (New York’s program is here, for example.) Even if no public aid exists (and you may have to dig to find it — don’t give up easily), consider hiring a trusted agency or relative to come in for a few hours a week. (Don’t hesitate to do background checks — they don’t cost that much, and give you much more peace of mind.)
Your dad may not be eating properly because he has little interest in cooking. Check: is there a local senior center he could visit, or a Meals On Wheels program? Get some nutritious frozen dinners. Stop by the local farmer’s market for fruit, or pick up favorite snacks. (One woman actually spent time making extra meals, and left the freezer nicely stocked, until her next visit.)
Check outside, too. Is the lawn getting mowed? Neighbors may be able to help (offer to pay) — or hire a service. Many have a seasonal plan, which keeps lawns trim, as well as walks shoveled regularly after snowstorms. Finally:
5. Your parent is increasingly frail. They may have trouble moving around, or caring for themselves. (One good, if nasty tip: do an extensive smell check of their favorite chair.) They may fall easily. When’s the last time they visited a doctor? Are they able to see well enough? (They may have been putting off a visit to the eye doctor for a new prescription.)
If possible, go along on their next doctor visit. Ask questions, if you’re not sure what’s happening. Are they skimping on prescriptions, because of cost? Many programs are out there now to help seniors pay for medications. (Even Wal-Mart has one…just ask.)
Technology is a growing help in this department. Medical alert systems have gone down in price, and are a reliable way for your dad to signal for help if he falls and cannot get up. Security programs can now be monitored via computer. Even Skype is a helpful (and no-cost) way to see your parent while they’re talking. (Use the grandkids as an excuse, if you have to.)
One sneaky way to check on your parents’ health: if you have a trusted friend or relative who is a nurse, doctor or nursing assistant, is to ask them to visit now and then…then contact you with a report. For the last few years of our mother-in-law’s life, a cousin would “drop by for coffee” regularly. Mom had terminal bone cancer, and thanks to our kind cousin (who was a nurse), we were able to gauge Mom’s health more easily. (Offer to pay, or help them in kind with something else.)
Everything may be fine. But if it isn’t, at least you’ll have a starting point to consider what to do next. After all, your parents paid the bills, mowed the lawn, and took care of you growing up. Taking care of your parents now is just returning the favor.