Signs to look for when visiting the elderly

I lived 500 miles away from my grandfather when he died, and it had been nearly a decade since I had spent any considerable length of time around him or my grandmother. Spending two weeks with my grandmother, before and after Fafa’s funeral, was a real eye-opener.

There was more than grief going on. Suddenly, her husband of 50 years wasn’t there to “cover” for her age-related decline. He had been doing the driving, shopping and assisting with many of my grandmother’s activities of daily living — things that became overwhelming to her. Although she lived independently for a while after his death, it wasn’t long until our family realized she would be safer and happier transitioning to a senior living community.

When you’re around an older relative all the time, subtle health and behavior changes can go unnoticed. Spending time with them after being “removed” — be it because of college, career or simply the busyness of life — can cast a spotlight on the accumulated effect of those subtle changes.

It’s something that many adult children see when going home for the holidays. Often, it has been a year or more since their last visit to their parent’s or grandparent’s home turf. The sibling discussion begins, sometimes after their elderly relatives go to bed: Did you notice how frail Mom looked? And how Dad repeated the same story during dinner — twice? Did you see the mountain of newspapers piled in the garage?

The refrigerator can be a red flag. Check for expiration dates on perishables. An outdated item or two is one thing, but a crisper loaded with rotted veggies and last year’s cheese is another matter entirely. Likewise, if the cupboard is bare, it should raise questions about diet, appetite, finances or simply shopping logistics.

This is a good time to discuss lending a hand or setting up a service to help with transportation, shopping, cooking or cleaning. Adaptive measures might be needed, such as adding grip bars in the shower or a ramp near the front door. If you need a checklist of ways to make the household safer for seniors, see this one Staying Safe at Home fact sheet from Norton Audubon Hospital’s Geriatric Care Services.

Also, you can get insight into an elderly relative’s health and well-being by accompanying them (with their approval, of course) on their next visit with the gerontologist or other elder-care expert. Medication may need tweaking or monitoring to assure the proper dose is being administered.

In the case of my grandmother, we found out that her doctor had been treating her for dementia symptoms for some time. It wasn’t the kind of thing she shared before Fafa died. Our family, her doctors and, eventually, her assisted living providers all worked together as a team to assure that she lived out her days peacefully.

  • Mickey Gramig