The holidays bring scattered families together -- giving adult children the perfect opportunity to closely inspect how aging parents are managing.
It's no coincidence that calls to assisted living facilities and other housing alternatives spike just after the holidays. That's when relatives pick up worrisome clues of trouble or see crises unfolding before their eyes.
So while you're spreading cheer this season, be a bit of a double agent, also sniffing out the following eight potential signs of trouble. You're not being nosy; you're being proactive and smart.
1. Give a big hug.
Increased frailty. If you can notice something "different" about a person's strength and stature just in a hug, it's noteworthy. Pay close attention to how your loved one walks (shuffles more?) and moves (rises easily from a chair? has trouble with balance?), comparing these benchmarks to the last time you were together.
Obvious weight gain. Injury, diabetes, and dementia (because the person doesn't remember eating and has meals over and over) might be the cause. So can money troubles that lead to fewer fresh foods, more dried pasta and bread.
Strange body odor. Sad to say, changes in personal grooming habits because of memory trouble or physical ailments might be noticeable on very close inspection. Look, too, for changes in makeup, hair, or the ability to wear clean clothes.
2. Riffle through the mail.
Unopened personal mail. Everybody leaves junk mail alone, but few of us can ignore a good old-fashioned, hand-addressed letter.
Unopened bills. This can be a sign that your loved one is having difficulty managing finances -- one of the most common first signs of dementia.
Letters from banks, creditors, or insurers. They may be routine business. But it's alarming if they're referring to overdue payments, overdrawn balances, recent accidents, or other worrisome events.
Thank-you messages from charities. Older adults are often vulnerable to scammers, and even those who have always been fiscally prudent are vulnerable if they're having trouble with thinking skills (a common sign of Alzheimer's disease). Some charities hit up givers over and over, and your loved one may not remember having donating the first time.
3. Take a drive -- with Mom or Dad behind the wheel.
Nicks or dents as you enter and exit the car. These can be signs of careless driving.
Whether your loved one fastens his or her seatbelt. Rote basics are usually, but not always, remembered by someone with mild dementia.
Signs of tension, preoccupation, or being easily distracted. Is your loved one no longer willing to drive at night? Or on highways? Is it hard for him or her to talk to you or listen to the radio and also pay close attention to the road?
Signs of impaired driving. Tailgating, slow reaction time, going consistently below speed limit, confusing gas and brake pedals are signs to watch for. See 8 more ways to assess someone's driving.
Dashboard warning lights. Does the car have sufficient oil, gas, antifreeze, windshield-wiper fluid?
4. Inspect the kitchen -- fridge to counter to cupboards.
Perishables past their expiration dates. Your loved one might be buying more than he or she needs, as we all do -- but you want to be sure there's a reasonable ability to ditch the old stuff (rather than use it).
Multiples of the same item. Ten bottles of ketchup or a dozen different vinegars might indicate he or she can't remember from one shopping trip to the next what's in the cupboards at home.
Appliances that are broken and haven't been repaired. Check the microwave, coffeemaker, toaster, washer, and dryer -- any device you know your parent used to use routinely.
Signs of past fire. Look for charred stove knobs or pot bottoms, potholders with burned edges, a discharged fire extinguisher, smoke detectors that have been disassembled. Accidents happen -- but accidental fires are a common home danger for older adults.
Increased takeout or simpler cooking. If someone who used to cook a lot no longer does or has downshifted to extremely simple recipes, the explanation could be a change in physical or mental ability.
5. Look around the living areas.
Piles of clutter. Especially if this is a change for your loved one, being unable to throw anything away may be a sign of a neurological or physical issue. Papers that spill onto the floor are a particular tripping hazard.
Cobwebs, signs of spills that haven't been picked up, or other signs of housekeeping that's more lax than it once was. Spills are a common sign of dementia -- the person lacks the follow-through to clean up after a mess. Or your loved one may have physical limitations and simply need more housekeeping help.
Clutter and grime in the bathroom. Often those who make an extra effort to tidy for guests in main rooms neglect the bathroom, where a truer picture of how the person is keeping up with things may be reflected.
Signs that your loved one has cut back on activities and interests. Is a hobby area abandoned? Are there no longer engagements written on the hall calendar? There are many reasons people cut back, but dropping out of everything and showing interest in almost nothing is a red flag for depression.
6. Notice how the other living things are faring.
Plants that are dying, dead, or just gone. How well other life is looked after may reflect how well your parents can look after their own lives.
Animals that don't seem well tended. Watch out for dogs with long nails, cat litter boxes that aren't changed routinely, dead fish in the fish tank, or any animal that seems underfed or poorly groomed.
7. Walk around the grounds.
Signs of home maintenance problems. Look for discolored siding or ceilings that might indicate a leak, gutters choked with leaves, broken windows or fences.
Newspapers in the bushes. Check for papers that were delivered but ignored.
Mail piled up in the mailbox. Watch for this indication that your loved one doesn't even retrieve it regularly.
8. Ask eyewitnesses: Talk to those in your loved one's circle.
Stories that reflect your loved one doesn't get out much. "We don't see her much lately." "She doesn't call anymore." "She quit bridge club."
Stories that reflect that your loved one has complained about health or needs extra assistance getting basic chores done. "Has he had that heart test yet?" "We were worried the day the ambulance came."
Hints of concern in their voices. Listen for comments about your loved one -- about his or her health, pets, anything.