The holidays are a wonderful time to connect and check in on the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our aging parents from afar. Social gatherings enable us to see how elderly family members are taking care of themselves and if they need assistance in doing so. With in-person gatherings strongly discouraged and many of us opting for Zoom celebrations instead, it may be more challenging to identify the warning signs, but it is still possible to keep an eye on our loved ones and catch preemptive cues from afar.

Being Proactive: Warning Signs to Look For From Afar

While you may not be able to meet face-to-face with your loved ones this year, or aging parents from afar but you can still observe an aging family member and spot potential warning signs. Consider the following proactive approaches while video conferencing with elderly relatives: 

  • Pay close attention to your loved ones’ feelings and reactions. Are you picking up on an emotion you do not usually see from them? Are they normally very upbeat, but seem irritable and tired? Try to keep tabs on behavior that is out of the ordinary.

  • Track their ability to follow and contribute to the conversation. As new topics are mentioned, take note of how they adjust to the conversational shift. Are they taking a while to follow the discussion?

  • Listen for any mention of activities or routine. Are they regularly visiting their doctor? Are they still attending religious services? Ask them questions that will give you insight into their whereabouts and daily routine and be on the lookout for any inconsistencies. Have they stopped completing the same New York Times crossword puzzle they have been doing for the last decade? Disregarding hobbies and habits that usually bring the person joy can be a potential red flag.

  • Evaluate members of an elderly couple individually. When a couple grows old together, they may begin to decline around the same time, and often do so in different ways. For example, a wife’s vision may worsen, while her husband’s hearing does too. When this happens, they may compensate for one another’s deficiencies. Try to engage with each individual separately. That will help you determine the kind of assistance each person needs.

Asking the Right Questions

A great way to gauge an elderly person’s cognitive ability is by asking engaging, open-ended questions that spark conversation. Instead of asking, “Are you feeling okay?” try, “Did you meet with Dr. Smith this month? What did the doctor tell you?” This not only encourages the person to speak but also compels them to recall something that previously happened, which is a good mark of one’s cognitive abilities. If you’re struggling to come up with questions that will allow you to gain insight into their well-being without seeming accusatory or unnatural, try one of the following approaches:

  • Ask how they are adjusting to telemedicine. This will allow you to see if they are keeping up with doctor appointments and taking their medications regularly.

  • Ask which activities they enjoyed this week. This shows whether or not the person is staying active and social and if they can recall their daily activities.

  • Ask them to show off a room, photo, or plant during your video call. This allows you to catch a glimpse of their current living state. Does it look like anything is out of the ordinary? Does everything appear to be in order?

How to Respond to Signs of Cognitive Decline

“Always approach this as a collaborator, not an investigator.” — Carolyn Risilia, Vice President, Operations and Client Services, Theia Senior Solutions

Noticing signs of cognitive decline in a loved one can be an emotional rollercoaster. While you may feel too paralyzed or scared to move forward, the safest approach is always a proactive one.

Instead of spotlighting the person’s deficiencies and decline, enter the conversation as a collaborator. When you arrive at the topic, position the conversation so it’s clear that you are creating a solution together. Your loved one should not feel like you’re doing something to them, but rather something with and for them.

A good way to prevent any “attacks” is by placing part of the stress or worry on yourself. Instead of saying, “Mom, you haven’t been doing well and you’re not taking good care of yourself,” try saying, “I lose sleep each night wondering if you’re okay. I want to give you the same love and care you have given me.”

It’s important to observe the balance between honoring someone’s wishes and ensuring their health and safety. Aging can be an emotional experience, and denial may leave a person bereft of options down the line. If you sense something is amiss with an elderly relative, act on your intuition. It is better to practice fire safety than to learn how to put out a fire once it is already ablaze.

A thoughtful and planned approach will help an elderly family member feel supported and in control as they gracefully grow into their old age.