Many people make trips to visit their elderly loved ones around the holidays. In some cases, this may be the only time they see their elderly loved ones all year, or it might be their first get-together in several years. While frequent catch-ups over the phone can help you stay connected, it’s difficult to assess a senior’s health for potential decline unless you are together in person.
This makes holiday trips an essential time to assess older loved ones for signs of elderly decline and determine whether or not they can continue living independently. However, it can be difficult to know what to look for when visiting elderly relatives, especially when it comes to early signs of dementia. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of 22 signs of elderly decline to look for in older loved ones during your trips this holiday season.
Balance and Mobility Issues
When visiting with loved ones over the holidays, pay attention to how they walk and move. Look for uncertain balance, changes in gait, unsteadiness on their feet, and other signs of elderly decline. Also look for signs of pain while moving, such as wincing and joint stiffness. Changes in mobility and coordination can greatly increase risks of falls, which can lead to injuries and health complications.
Reluctance to Walk or Exercise
Mobility issues can cause the elderly to pull back from exercising, which can have a significant negative impact on their physical health. They might even be reluctant to walk long distances that they previously handled with ease. During your visit, suggest some light physical activity and pay attention to how your elderly loved one reacts. If they do agree to go on a walk with you, notice how quickly they tire and how soon they want to turn around.
Bruises and Injuries
Speaking of fall risk, your loved one might show signs of bruises, scratches, burns or other injuries — another sign of elderly decline. They may try to conceal these from you, so keep an eye out for these signs. If you notice bruises, follow up with them and ask how they were injured. They may try to conceal the answer from you or simply not recall how they sustained the injuries.
Difficulty with Words
Dementia and Alzheimer’s can cause difficulty with both the spoken and written word. Your loved one might forget a word while speaking and be totally unable to recall it or lose their train of thought in the middle of a sentence. They might also struggle to read even a simple written message, which can be exacerbated by vision impairment that makes it hard to see the words on the page.
Forgetfulness and difficulty with words can extend to remembering people’s names. One of the early signs of dementia is forgetting the names of people they have just been introduced to — such as a new grandchild or a relative’s partner who is attending the holiday gathering for the first time. As dementia progresses, the elderly might forget the names of people they have known for years or even confuse one person for another. For example, your elderly loved one may think their granddaughter is actually their daughter.
Confusion with Time
Dementia can cause elderly people to struggle with time in various ways — another sign of elderly decline. They may forget the date or confuse the current month or year entirely. They may also confuse the seasons, which can lead to wearing summer clothes in winter. Sometimes, this type of confusion can extend to forgetting one’s age and family members’ ages, too.
Disorientation with Place
Beyond causing difficulties with time confusion, dementia can also cause people to become disoriented with their location. They may not remember which relative’s house they are at or even start driving to a familiar location and then get lost halfway to the destination. They may also go wandering on foot and become lost, which can be extremely dangerous—especially if they are in frigid temperatures or busy roadways.
The disorientation and confusion that accompany mental decline can lead elderly adults to misplace important objects, sometimes in totally nonsensical places. For example, they may put their men’s elastic waist pants in the oven instead of the dryer or put their wallets and keys in the bathroom cupboard. They may also forget where they stored the Christmas decorations the previous year or even where they store the guest towels.
Bad Financial Decisions
Due to cognitive decline, affected elderly people often make unsound financial decisions. This can lead to unpaid bills piling up around the house and even some services being cut off. These people may also engage in excessive and erratic spending, especially when it comes to holiday gifts and donation drives. The elderly are also vulnerable to being scammed, so over the holidays it’s important to have a conversation with them about these possibilities and discuss how they can protect themselves.
Vision impairment, mobility issues, disorientation and confusion make it very difficult for some elderly people to drive a car. This can lead to some people withdrawing from social engagements and eventually hardly leaving the house. Seniors are also more vulnerable to depression — which can also present as withdrawing from friends and family. Talk to your loved one about what they’ve been doing recently to see if they’re still engaging with people or if they are isolating themselves.
Damage to the Car
While some seniors stop driving for safety reasons, others do continue driving even when they shouldn’t. Even if they don’t get in a fender bender with another vehicle, they can side-swipe or back into objects like mailboxes due to issues with depth perception. While you’re visiting them, carefully examine their car for signs of new damage. You might also ask them to take you for a drive around the block so you can assess how their driving skills are holding up.
Obvious Weight Change
Sudden weight loss or gain in seniors can be a symptom of many possible causes, including underlying physical health issues and dementia that make it hard to cook. If you haven’t seen your loved one in a while, take note of how their clothes are fitting and whether or not there have been significant changes in their weight. A little weight fluctuation is normal, but significant weight changes should be discussed with their doctor to determine the cause.
Dementia can lead seniors to remove their clothing at inappropriate times. They may also choose clothing that is inappropriate to the season or occasion, such as selecting pajamas for a nice holiday dinner or putting on shorts when it is snowing outside. These elderly people may also struggle to dress and undress themselves due to mobility limitations. If you notice your loved one is experiencing these symptoms of dementia, anti-strip clothing can keep them from undressing and maintain independence if traditional closures are too difficult for them to use.
Spoiled or Expired Foods
Another sign of elderly decline is buying food and then forgetting to use it up before it expires. Look through their fridge to check for any food that has gone bad. Also, check in the pantry for any canned or boxed goods that might have passed their expiration date. Eating spoiled or expired foods represents serious health hazards for seniors and can also contribute to malnutrition.
In addition to burns on their skin, also look for scorch marks and other signs of accidents on their pots, pans and stove. When cooking, the elderly may turn the temperature up too high or leave the burner on too long, leading to accidents. If you are staying in the house with them, periodically check to see if they leave appliances like the stove and oven on as well.
As dementia and mobility issues progress, seniors may stop cleaning the house to their usual standards. This can present as piles of unwashed laundry, clutter on the floor, undusted furniture, grimy bathrooms and floors that haven’t been vacuumed or mopped in weeks. Look for subtle signs, as well as the more obvious ones. For instance, our loved one may clean the common areas of the house but forget about the office or guest room for months.
Messy Yard and Exterior
Yard work requires a lot of strength and stamina, so seniors may let that slide first while still keeping up with the interior of their house. While this isn’t as obvious during the winter since plants are growing, you should still look out for signs of neglect. Maybe they haven’t replaced floodlights that have burned out, or the gutters are full of leaves and need cleaning out or the driveway is icy because it hasn’t been salted.
In addition to checking for expired food as a sign of elderly decline, you should also examine your loved one’s medicine cabinet and bedside table to see if any of their medications are expired. You should also assess their current medications to see if they are accidentally skipping or doubling doses, which can be caused by dementia and lead to serious complications. If they are continually skipping doses, that could be the cause behind some of the expired or old medications.
Everyone forgets commitments occasionally, but this will be even more pronounced in older adults who are struggling with the early stages of dementia. This leads these people to miss important appointments, whether that is a doctor’s visit or a trip to the hair salon. They may even miss holiday parties, family dinners, and other social engagements during your visit.
Neglected Pets or Plants
If seniors have pets, they may forget to give them food or water, take them for walks, clean up after them or exercise them. They may also forget to water plants and let them die off. If there are any pets or plants in the house, check them for signs of neglect and observe your elderly loved one’s behavior around them. Do you have to prompt them to feed the pets or do they remember to do it of their own accord?
Changes in Sleep Habits
Health issues can cause drastic changes in sleep habits, causing seniors to either develop insomnia or sleep too much. Some medications can also cause sleep issues as a side effect. While you’re visiting for the holidays, ask your loved one about how they’ve been sleeping lately and make note of their response. Be sure to watch for signs of sleep deprivation, such as constant yawning, dozing off, grogginess, poor concentration and delayed reaction time.
Mood or Personality Changes
Sudden mood swings or most long-standing personality changes can be the result of multiple issues, ranging from dementia to urinary tract infections (UTIs). If your loved one isn’t behaving like themselves, carefully observe their actions and reactions to see if you can establish a cause. Also look out for signs of depression and anxiety, which can contribute to mood swings as well as social withdrawal.
We hope this list helped you feel more confident about what signs of elderly decline to look for during your holiday visits. For many resources about caring for elderly loved ones, such as gifts for stroke victims, check out the Silverts Giving Care blog for advice and tips. And if you’re looking for clothing specifically designed with elderly loved ones in mind, shop the Silverts online store! All our products ship for free in the continental U.S. and come with a 60-day money-back guarantee.