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Looking after parents from a distance

Joan Hatem-Roy, Chief Executive Officer

Q: I plan to make a trip back to the area after the holidays to visit my elderly parents. I realize traveling is not recommended now, but I feel a need to check on them. My mother hasn’t sounded like herself during our calls, and my father doesn’t always want to be on phone. When we do speak, he appears to be disoriented. What should I be looking for when I visit?

A: It is estimated more than 5 million Americans are providing some form of assistance from a distance to older relatives. Like you, many of these caregivers rely on telephone conversations to gauge how their loved one is doing. In some instances, they have the help of neighbors or friends to do occasional check-ins. Age-related decline can often occur rapidly. Infrequent visits for long-distance caregivers may be the only opportunity to determine what is happening in the home.

While you are with your parents, some red flags may alert you to potential or existing problems. Does it appear weight loss is a new issue? This could be due to loss of appetite, difficulty getting out to do grocery shopping, or difficulty preparing meals. Look in the refrigerator and cupboards to see what food is available.

It isn’t always easy to pinpoint changes in mood or behavior over the phone even though you have noticed something doesn’t seem right. Watch for indications of depression, anxiety, loss of interest in hobbies, agitation, or confusion. This could be due to a medical issue or the prolonged isolation from COVID. Don’t be reluctant to ask them directly how they are feeling physically and emotionally.

Can you detect any obvious changes in the home environment? Is there excessive clutter, piles of laundry, or a decline in the cleanliness of the home? Unopened mail may indicate bills are not being paid on time. Check cabinets for oddities such as cleaning supplies are being stored in a food pantry. Don’t overlook their appearance. If your parents were always particular about their hygiene and now look unkempt this is a concern.

Once you have an idea of what is going on, action may be required. Since you do not live in the area, you will need to rely on others for assistance. Talk with your parents’ neighbors and ask if they will email or call you if they notice issues of concern. Encourage your parents to make an appointment with their primary care physician to rule out new health conditions. Seek out services designed for older adults in their area and ask your parents to allow a care manager to come out and meet with them to address any unmet needs. Remember it may take time to resolve all of these issues.

Are you struggling to care for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our experienced staff is available to offer assistance. Visit us online at www.ESMV.org for more information. You can also call us at 1-800-892-0890 or email ageinfo@esmv.org. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and North Shore.