How to help resident family members home for the holidays

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David Inns
David Inns

The federal Administration on Aging forecast that the U.S. senior population would grow to 98 million by this year, more than doubling since 2014. As this population grows, so does the number of family caregivers.

More than 25% of those caring for an older family member are caring from a distance, posing a set of unique challenges including reliance on others for critical information about their parents' well-being. If a parent lives in a different state, then family members may need the help of a professional caregiver who can be there for day-to-day needs, or they may use technology that helps them keep tabs.

Whether older adults are living independently or in a senior living community, caregivers' ability to ensure their loved ones' safety, health and need fulfillment are limited when they can't be there in person. As you know, for older adults living in senior living communities, regular communication between the community and family members is essential, and using technology to help track their wellbeing is great in the interim. When adult children return home for the holidays, however, they have the opportunity to reconnect and check in on how older family members are doing.

You may wish to share with them the four warning signs below that their loved one may not be in the best of health.

1. Physical health. Sudden weight loss in older adults can signify depression, social withdrawal or lack of resources. Weight loss and lack of appetite also can be early detectors of a health problem. Family members also should be on the lookout for bruises, which could signify falls or trouble walking. If the older adult is living in your senior living community, you may have communicated these signs to them ahead of time, but family members typically know their parents best and may notice something uncharacteristic that a professional caregiver or other senior living staff member may not.

2. Mental health. Cognitive well-being is an important sign that an older adult might not be doing well, particularly if he or she is living alone. Adult children should pay attention to whether the senior is forgetting or repeating things; whether he or she seems confused during simple, day-to-day tasks; and whether or not he or she is conversing easily with others.

3. Driving skills. Because long-distance caregivers aren't involved in their loved ones' daily routines, they may not be aware that it could be time for an older adult to give up the car keys. Adult children should examine the condition of the car of any senior driver, including whether there is gas in the tank or any visible dents. Family members also should take a drive with the senior to evaluate skills and confidence on the road.

4. Social engagement. It's important to make sure aging parents still are engaging in social activity for their emotional well-being. Adult children will want to be aware of whether their parents are telling stories about recently going out to dinner or other activities with friends, or whether they seem hesitant or nervous to leave their living space. Social engagement doesn't necessarily have to be in-person, either; children should check to see whether parents have been keeping in touch with friends and other family members.

If family caregivers notice red flags, then they can take several steps. They should identify resources to aid with the problem at hand, determine a backup plan, possibly reevaluate living arrangements and find tools to better keep in touch when they can't be there in person.

Family caregivers also need to prepare to have a difficult conversation, in the scenario that a change needs to be made. Whether urging an older family member to give up the car keys, bringing up a change in living situation or encouraging more frequent doctors' visits, the caregiver must be prepared to communicate that the suggestion is being made with the seniors' health and safety in mind, not to limit independence.

Professional caregivers can assist, as it may be easier for seniors to hear these suggestions from a third party. Present the situation in a factual manner, explain where the concerns lie and present the benefits associated with making a change.

All those involved in the caregiving process — including professional caregivers at senior living communities or in-home help, family members and neighbors — must work together with the seniors' best interests in mind. This means open communication, questions and honest conversations about the situation at hand.

David Inns is CEO of GreatCall, based in San Diego. The company's products and services include the Lively personal emergency response system; the Jitterbug Flip and Jitterbug Smart phones; Lively Wearable fitness tracker; and health, safety and wellness apps Urgent Care, GreatCall Link, MedCoach and 5Star.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes marketplace columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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