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Stepping in or Overstepping? Identifying When Help Is Needed During Holiday Visits

Visiting Elderly Parents and Grandparents for Holidays

It’s that time of year: holiday music, traffic, and annual pilgrimages to see parents, aunts, and uncles who live far away. As more seniors are living longer, more are living alone. This increases their risk of abuse and neglect.

The holidays are a good time to check on our loved ones and assess what assistance they might need to safely age in their homes. However, it is important to come to the discussion with respect for your elder’s independence or your offers of help may be rebuffed.

Questions to Ask

Prepare a checklist of things to look out for and to discuss with your loved one. It might include questions such as:

  • Does an elderly loved one require help with housekeeping, dressing, bathing, shopping, meal preparation, or medications?
  • Are they isolated or lonely? How often do they socialize with others?
  • If living with another, are they dependent on that person for care?
  • Is that person an appropriate caregiver?
  • Does the caregiver understand the medical conditions that the elder has?

Make the most of your visits by taking some private time with the elder to discuss future planning. Sometimes seniors need help but are afraid that their children or other relatives will force them out of their home if they share any concerns or difficulties. Reassuring your loved ones that you want to help them live the life they want can help. Such support and guidance can help prevent serious accidents and future health complications, allowing seniors to remain in their homes longer.

How to Recognize If Help Is Needed

However, other times seniors do not recognize their decline or limitations. During your visit, keep an eye out for warning signs of self-neglect, or exploitation by others. Possible signs of self-neglect or danger may include:

  • Senior appears confused or disengaged
  • Senior is no longer able to handle meal preparation, bathing, bill paying, etc.
  • The refrigerator is empty or it is clear that the kitchen has not been used recently
  • Senior is drinking too much or is abusing drugs
  • The substantial change in home appearance – cluttered or dirty
  • Senior is falling frequently
  • Car is scratched or dented or you observe the senior driving unsafely
  • Senior appears undernourished, dehydrated, under-medicated, or is not getting care for problems with eyesight, hearing, dental problems, incontinence, etc.

Elder exploitation commonly occurs in early cognitive decline, so if your loved one is showing evidence of memory loss or other cognitive impairment, look for signs of elder abuse and exploitation:

  • Presence of “new best friend” who is willing to care for the senior for little or no cost
  • Recent changes in banking or spending patterns
  • Unwarranted repairs or renovations or mention of “helpful” neighbor who will handle repairs needed
  • Family pet seems neglected or abused
  • An abundance of online shopping packages, mail and/or phone solicitations for money

Discuss any concerns with your loved one open and honestly. Ask your elderly loved ones directly if they are afraid of anyone, if anyone is taking things without their permission, if anyone is asking them to do things they are not comfortable with, or if anyone is humiliating them.

Take the Next Step

If you believe your loved one needs help, you should try to enlist other family members to offer support. If your loved one appears to be in danger and won’t accept the help you can call your local Adult Protective Services or Office on Aging. If the person lives in a licensed facility, call the local Long-term Care Ombudsman. You can also introduce yourself to responsible neighbors and friends. Give them your address and phone numbers in case of an emergency. It can be difficult to know when to intercede but taking time to observe, listen and understand what your loved ones are experiencing during your visits is the first step.

If you have any questions about this post or any other related matters, please feel free to email me at