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The holiday season may bring fun opportunities to visit family—and it’s also the perfect chance to check in with your parents and ensure they’re doing fine on their own.
“I think it’s important to look at the environment they’re living in to see if there’s any changes from what their past history has been,” said Tina Schneider, Vice President of Clinical Services for Rennes Group.
For example, if your mom or dad was always tidy, and now their home isn’t as clean or organized as it once was, that may be a clue their health is changing, Tina said. Likewise, if their personal appearance seems different, such as if they appear disheveled when they are normally a careful dresser—or their hygiene standards are slipping—that’s often an indicator something needs attention.
None of these changes are necessarily indicators of a cognitive decline, but can be a signifier of any number of health issues, Tina said. Maybe your parent is experiencing a decrease in mobility due to joint pain or other health issues, for example, and it’s harder for them to clean the house or dress properly.
“Watch for changes in their mobility status – does it take them longer to get from Point A to Point B? Have they had an increase in falls or do they seem unsteady on their feet?” Tina said. “Weight loss or weight gain is another big indicator of a medical change – and something to inquire about.”
Other indicators to watch for might include a change from a normal routine – was your parent an early riser but is now sleeping rather late? That can be an indicator of a medical or cognitive issue.
“Or sometimes, it can simply be that they’re bored or not getting enough stimulation,” Tina said.
Try to ask about medications—has your parent been taking them properly and getting needed prescriptions filled? “Do they have issues getting those prescriptions filled? Double-check that they’re taking everything they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to, and if not, try to determine the reasons why.”
All of us forget things or misplace things, but if you’re noticing a pattern where the forgetfulness is happening frequently, it may be something to ask about.
“Are they making excuses as to why it’s happening? If your parent becomes mixed up or changes the topic, it could be because they don’t want you to see those cognitive deficits,” Tina said. “We see people get very good at navigating conversation away from those questions that you’re asking, especially when they’re having a hard time remembering details.”
Medication issues or dehydration are also potential causes of confusion, forgetfulness and changes in the household or their appearance, Tina said. Changes in hearing or vision also can account for some noticeable differences in the home or your parent’s behavior.
“Or, if someone is having joint issues such as a hip or knee problem, they’re probably not moving around because of the pain,” she said. “Maybe they haven’t sought medical care when some orthopedic remedy could get them back to their prior state.”
Parents may not ask for help out of pride or because they don’t want to create extra stress for their kids.
“When it comes to issues with pain, a lot of our parents don’t want the child to feel like they have to take care of them or worry about them,” Tina said. “They know their children are busy and they don’t want to be a burden.”
But adult children can offer assistance in a way that encourages their parents to accept the help, she said. It can start with an offer to work on a specific task, such as cleaning up an untidy kitchen, while at the same time emphasizing your desire to help.
“You can say that it would make you feel good if they let you do it,” Tina said. “Then, when you’re helping them, have that conversation – ‘Are you having a hard time getting to this, are you having pain?’ It may help them to open up a little bit more about what’s going on.”
Encouraging your parent to visit their primary care provider first may help address any physical issues that can be corrected or addressed, such as vision, hearing or medication. Aging & Disability Resource Centers are also a good place to find options and referrals, Tina said. There also are options for home health care to assist your parents with daily needs.
If your mom or dad seems to be truly struggling, whether it’s physically, cognitively or emotionally, assisted living may be a good option.
“It’s not necessarily that they can’t take care of themselves – they just might not be able to get out and do the things that gave them purpose before, like socializing or volunteering or going to events,” Tina said. “They could benefit from living with others in a similar situation.”
Having those conversations early on, and touring assisted living and long-term care facilities, also can help remove the stigma or worry surrounding that potential change in living situation, Tina said.
“When you go into the building, you’ll see the life that’s there, and the fun there can be—it’s not the long-term care that we all thought of twenty years ago.”
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