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Navigating the Holidays with Aging Parents: Recognizing Signs They Need Help and Providing Support

A senior woman with cooked turkey looking at her granddaughter and both smiling

The holidays are here again and you’re gearing up for family gatherings with your parents and comforting foods passed down from generations past. The days of your aging mom spending hours in the kitchen are gone but that’s ok. That’s a normal part of the aging process and nothing to be concerned about. However, there are other signs that should serve as red flags and prompt a closer look. Use this holiday season as the perfect opportunity to notice changes in your parent’s physical and psychological health. From the writers at, here are 9 things you should look for:

  • Appearance: A significant weight loss could indicate difficulty in cooking or an undiagnosed medical condition such as dementia or cancer.
  • Personal hygiene: The Mayo Clinic points out that “Failure to keep up with daily routines — such as bathing and tooth brushing — could indicate dementia, depression or physical impairments.”
  • Mobility: Signs of muscle weakness or unsteady walking might suggest that the parent would benefit from a cane or walker. Addressing this issue is particularly important as it greatly increases the risk of falling and suffering a life-ending or permanently debilitating injury.
  • Confusion: Any indication that a parent is having difficulty understanding directions on medication, following a recipe, or getting lost while driving is cause for serious concern and should prompt discussion with a medical professional.
  • House and yard maintenance: An overgrown yard, broken appliances, blown fuses, non-working lights, and similar problems can point to general confusion or lack of interest in the day-to-day aspects of life.
  • Unopened mail and unpaid bills: Clutter in a household that is normally neat and well-organized can be an early warning sign of cognitive problems.
  • Spoiled food in the refrigerator: Eating expired food can cause sickness and is another indication of general confusion.
  • Unexplained bruises: Dizziness and balance issues can result in falls and bruises on the face, arms, and legs. By not explaining how the bruising occurred — or avoiding the topic entirely — can indicate it’s a common occurrence and something that should be addressed.
  • Dents and scratches on the car: Driving represents independence and is an activity that no one wants to give up or have taken away. That means it’s an area where the elderly are most likely to be secretive. Driving when not fully capable, however, puts the driver as well as other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians at risk.

So, what do you do, once you’ve identified a concern? Most times, our parents are in denial about their physical and/or mental decline. They may feel, they are fully capable of handling life and reject or become defensive at the idea of needing help with day-to-day activities. This is the exact moment, called the “parent-child role reversal”, when you’ll need to step up and accept the responsibility. Similar, to how your parents guided and kept you safe through childhood, now it’s your turn to do the same for them.

It’s important that you safeguard your parents’ health and safety by being proactive as soon as the first red flag appears. Don’t wait until after an accident occurs because then it could be too late. Choose a private moment when you can sit down and speak with your parent, adult to adult, and discuss the changes you’ve noticed.

It might take a single conversation or multiple ones but once your parents agree and acknowledge the concern, you can then begin the process of securing the best care for their wellbeing. By being proactive in identifying the causes for concern, you’ll have time to find the right solutions and make an informed decision — just like they did for you all those many years ago.

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