Most of us enjoy the time we spend with friends and family over the holidays. But for many older adults, get-togethers can be especially stressful, confusing or even perilous when they are out of their regular environment and routines.
Raising awareness of issues and situations that may arise with older guests can help make the holidays more pleasurable – and safer – for everyone.
To that end, Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at UCLA Health, offers the following advice:
First, be prepared. “The number one thing to be concerned about regarding the well-being of an older person is a fall,” says Reuben. “Falls often lead to injury or even broken bones, both of which can compromise a person’s mobility for the rest of their life.”
If you are having older guests to your home for the holidays, make sure steps are cleared, floors are covered by non-slip rugs and hallways can be easily navigated. Also try to make sure that cats, dogs and small children don’t get underfoot. Extending a steadying hand or arm can be a great help, too.
Second, pay attention. Holidays are often the one time a year when you can assess an aging loved one’s emotional and mental well-being, so make sure you ask them how things are going – and be observant of what they don’t say.
“It’s the things that are out of character that should be of concern,’’ says Reuben. Is your usually well-groomed aunt looking disheveled? Has she lost weight or are there other behaviors that seem unlike her? They might be signs of memory problems, early dementia or depression.”
There may be other signs of deteriorating cognitive abilities.
“It’s normal to sometimes call a person by the wrong name, but it’s a cause for concern when a relationship or national history is forgotten,” says Reuben. “If your mother doesn’t recognize the woman sitting across from her as her niece, that’s a red flag.” Another cause for concern is an older person who repeats the same question or story many times over a short period.
If your gut tells you something isn’t right, you should take action.
“Unless there’s an obvious health problem, skip the emergency room. The best thing is to make an appointment for a full check-up with the person’s regular doctor – someone who knows them and is aware of their health issues,” says Reuben. “If there’s resistance, tell them an annual check-up is a perfect New Year’s resolution.”
If you can, go with them to the appointment. If not, consider calling their doctor to share your concerns, which might include vision, hearing, mental health, mobility, or cognitive changes.
Third, be kind. Older people often get overwhelmed in large gatherings and may withdraw from activities. They also may tire easily. Bearing this in mind, you might suggest a rest, move to another room for some one-on-one time, and limit the noise level when you can.
Find time to really engage with older guests. Ask how they’ve been, what they’ve been up to, what they might be concerned about. It’s easy to overlook people when they are tucked in a corner. Remember to include them: ask them to share a holiday memory, such as receiving a favorite gift or participating in a family tradition as a child.
“Whether or not you observe a problem, be patient with older relatives and friends,” says Reuben. “Make sure everyone enjoys the spirit of the holidays.”