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Assessing Home Safety

Question: My parents live in Wisconsin; I live out of state and will be visiting them soon. They have experienced some struggles that resulted in hospitalizations. They are living independently. While I am visiting, what can I look for to be sure they are still safe in their home? How can I offer assistance and share concerns?

Answer: When families live away from one another, vacations and holidays may be your only opportunity to personally observe our parents. Family members who haven’t seen their aging loved ones in a while might be shocked at what they see: A formerly healthy father looking frail, or a mom whose once well-kept home is now in disarray. Absence, even for a short period, allows us to observe a situation through new eyes. The following may indicate the need to take action to ensure your parent’s safety and good health:

Weight Loss: is one of the most obvious signs of ill health. The cause could be an array of health issues or it could be a lack of energy to cook. Certain medications and aging in general can change the way food tastes. If weight loss is a concern, schedule an appointment with the primary doctor.

Balance: Pay close attention to the way your parent moves or walks. Reluctance to walk or pain during movement can be a sign of joint or muscle problems. If they are unsteady on their feet, they may be at risk of falling, which could cause severe injury or worse.

Emotional well-being: You can’t always gauge someone’s spirits over the phone, even if you talk daily. Take note of signs of depression including withdrawal from activities, changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in hobbies, lack of basic home maintenance or personal hygiene. The latter can be an indicator of not only depression but also dementia or physical ailments including dehydration. If you notice a change in behavior, be sure to seek medical attention.

Home environment: If your parent has been a stickler for neatness, for paying bills promptly, or if you discover excess or unsafe clutter and mail that has piled up, a problem may exist. Keep an eye out for less obvious indicators: scorched cookware could be a sign your parent is forgetting to turn off the stove. An overflowing hamper could mean they don’t have the strength or desire to do laundry. Be sure to check prescription medications and medication bottles for expiration dates. Make a list of medications and place it in their wallet.

Assessing Home Safety
If you notice these problems or others, here are some steps to take:
– Share your concerns through a heart-to-heart conversation with your parents.
– Contact the local aging department and ask about geriatric care management services that can help direct the many issues associated with aging and health care. Learn about in-home services to assist your parent with laundry, meal preparation, transportation, and other tasks.
– Identify local resources that can assist your parents, including friends, neighbors and clergy. Take time to contact those friends and ensure you have their phone numbers and e-email address.
– Compile a list of medical information about your parents’ prescriptions, doctor’s names and phone numbers.
– Obtain access to all your parent(s) vital documents including their will, power of attorney, birth certificate, social security number and insurance policies.

Remember to give your loved one the power and permission to be in control of his or her own life, as much as is reasonable. The more systems you have in place the more your loved one can remain independent and safe in their home.

Kathleen Weston
Director of Hospice Operation