Home for the Holidays: Signs Your Aging Loved One May Need Help

The holidays are a common time for families to gather. When we live apart, we often don't realize changes are occurring in our aging loved ones until we are together for an extended period of time. If you have family members who are older, this is when you may notice changes in behavior, routines and lifestyle.

The following reflect common changes that often alert family that there may be cause for concern and action. Signs your elder family member may need help may include:

  1. Concerned friends or neighbors are calling you as they are noticing worrisome changes and step in to provide help when they can. Relationships have changed, and your once outgoing parent is now isolating him- or herself from friends, no longer participating in activities that were once important such as book club, sports outings or dinner with friends.
  2. Finances are mishandled. Bills are unpaid or paid more than once; utilities are at risk of being shut off; money is hidden; and/or the mail or newspapers are piling up.
  3. There's a change in eating habits. Has your loved one lost weight? Has no appetite or missing meals? You discover the refrigerator has a strong odor and there's molding, rotten food in the kitchen, or a burnt pan on the stove that your love one can't explain.
  4. Medications are being taken incorrectly, and your parent is confused about his or her doctor's advice, not filling their prescriptions, or missing appointments.
  5. Hygiene concerns. Your parent is wearing soiled clothing, bathing infrequently, and not attending to oral hygiene as they once did. You notice body odor, bad breath, neglected nails and teeth, and sores on the skin.
  6. Your parent is not able to drive safely. The car has new scratches or dents, and routine maintenance is being ignored.
  7. "Mom is fine," you hear your father say. Mom agrees, though your gut tells you otherwise. They have learned to compensate for one another.
  8. Their home is not as clean or sanitary as you remember growing up. Just like with the car, routine maintenance is being neglected.
  9. Inappropriate behavior such as being unusually and uncharacteristically loud or quiet, paranoid, agitated, making phone calls at all hours.

What next? Take action!

Even if you don't live close by, there are step you can take to ensure your loved one's health and well-being:

  • Share your concerns with your parents. Start with a conversation and talk about your concerns. This is often the best first step. Your concern might motivate them to see a doctor or make changes. Consider including other people who care about your parents in the conversation, such as other loved ones, close friends, or clergy.
  • Encourage regular checkups. If you're worried about weight loss, depressed mood, memory loss or other signs and symptoms, such as those described above, encourage your parent to schedule a doctor's visit. Ask about follow-up visits as well.
  • Address safety issues. Review any potential safety concerns—then make a plan to address the issues. For example, if lighting is a concern, using a higher watt bulb may help. Your parents might benefit from using assistive devices to help them reach items on high shelves (or you could rearrange shelves). If driving safety is an issue, suggest and research transportation options such as coordinating with a friend to drive, taking the bus, using a service or hiring a driver.
  • Seek help from local agencies. In Seattle-King County, call Community Living Connections (844-348-KING) to get free information about local programs and services that can help meet your parent's needs. Community Living Connections can also connect you to similar services in other parts of the country. Alternatively, you can use the Eldercare Locator—a public service of the Administration on Aging—to locate aging network services in your parents' area. For example, the county in which your parents live might have social workers who can evaluate your parents' needs and connect them with services, such as home care workers, transportation alternatives, minor home repair, Meals on Wheels, or other community services.
  • Consider engaging an Aging Life Care expert. Also known as a geriatric care manager, an Aging Life Care expert is a health and human services specialist who acts as a guide and advocate for families who are caring for older relatives or disabled adults. By engaging an Aging Life Care professional, you are working with someone who takes a holistic, client-centered approach to caring for older adults. Visit the Aging Life Care Association website to locate an expert near you.

It's not always easy or comfortable talking with parents or other aging loved ones about concerns, as sometimes they won't admit they need help, and other times they don’t realize they need support. Ensure your parents that their health and well-being are priorities. Fortunately, there are many options and resources for supporting them and you. You are not in this alone!


Nicole Amico Kane, MSW, is an Aging Life Care Professional at Aging Wisdom, LLC, with over 10 years of experience in geriatric care management, medical and hospice social work. She assisted clients living with severe chronic medical conditions to optimize their health and quality of life.