Supporting an aging friend or family member living on their own has always been a challenge, especially if your loved one lives in another city, out of province or in another country entirely. Over the past year, pandemic circumstances including travel restrictions, cancelled family holidays and the fear of transmission have made keeping tabs on a loved one’s physical and mental health from a distance harder than ever before. As you wait to be fully vaccinated and for restrictions to lift, there are ways to check in from afar and to determine if your loved one could benefit from some extra help at home.
Start with Technology
While regular phone chats and texts are good ways to check in, video calls will allow you to physically see how your loved one is doing. Many older adults have become comfortable with technology during the pandemic, but if your loved one has been resistant or overwhelmed, it may be a good time to give them the extra push.
If they have a smartphone, tablet or computer, then they have what they need to chat with you on video and may just need written instructions, coaching over the phone or an app like Easy Tablet Help for Seniors to get started. And if they don’t have that technology, some devices are quite reasonably priced so you may be able to consider mailing a device to them if it’s within your budget. Tablets are often the best options for seniors as they can easily be carried around the house, they are lightweight and the font is bigger than on a phone. As an added bonus, access to this technology will also help with feelings of isolation, connecting your loved one to friends and other family members or virtual events like book clubs or online classes.
What to Look For
If you are concerned about a long-distance loved one, here’s what to look for to assess their health and independence remotely:
- Note appearance changes. Keep a close eye on your loved one’s appearance from call-to-call and watch for any changes. If you notice characteristics that aren’t typical like unkept or greasy hair, facial stubble, mismatched clothes, the same outfit over multiple days or weight loss, they may be struggling with personal care or meal preparation and could benefit from additional support.
- Take a tour. During your conversations, find a way to see other parts of your loved one’s home. Look for any noticeable differences in how they have maintained their home in the past including clutter that could create a tripping hazard, unmade beds, or piling dishes and laundry. Ask to see what they have in their fridge and pantry and share what you ate that day to encourage a conversation about what they are preparing at home. Not keeping up with household duties is a clue into their overall health and may indicate mobility issues, low energy, confusion or vision concerns.
- Get moving. Find an excuse during your call to watch your loved one get up and move around. Maybe ask to see something in another room, what book they are reading or the view from their window. Take note if they experience any difficulties getting up from a seated position, if they stumble or seem to have an irregular gait, and whether or not they’re using their walker or cane as prescribed.
- Assess memory. Memory problems can be related to aging and some health conditions or the side effects of medications can contribute to memory loss. However, there is a difference between normal memory changes and the type of loss that can make it hard to complete everyday tasks. To get a handle on your loved one’s cognitive function watch for things like repeated stories or questions and inappropriate comments. Try telling a story and bringing it up again later to see if your loved one remembers your conversation. Double check that your loved one knows the day/month/year, can tell you about important people in their life or are able to reiterate their medication schedule.
- Watch for silence. It’s not uncommon for people who actually need help to stop calling or communicating. They may not want to burden family or could be embarrassed to admit that they are struggling. Be proactive, reach out and dig deeper if you’ve noticed that your loved one is being less communicative than usual. This past year has been an incredibly difficult, isolating and worrisome time for many seniors so even if they are staying in regular contact, ask your loved one directly if they are feeling down, anxious or lonely.
- Enlist a team. Since you can’t physically check in, is there someone in your loved one’s neighbourhood that can help you? If so, ask a neighbour to let you know if the garbage isn’t going out, the mail is piling up or if they notice anything around the house that isn’t being maintained safely.
What If They Need Help?
Sometimes people don’t realize that they need support or are struggling to admit that they can no longer do everything on their own. If you do have concerns about your loved one’s ability to live without support, you will need to talk to them directly and involve them in your decision making. This will help your loved one feel like they are a part of the process and still have control over the decisions that are being made about them. Depending on the severity of your concerns, reassure your loved one that your goal is to help them maintain their independence and live safely and comfortably in their own home.
Try asking them what they think would be the most helpful and start there. If your loved one isn’t in immediate danger, take things slowly and increase the support as you go. Focus on one critical area like meal preparation and add on until they are getting the help that they need. If they refuse support, at least you’ve opened the door for future discussions when it becomes more urgent.
VHA Home HealthCare may be able to help your loved one if you are concerned about their health and safety. Private services for purchase include foot care, nursing and rehabilitation services, personal care, meal preparation, light housekeeping, companionship, grocery shopping and appointment escort services on top of other publicly-funded support. Contact VHA’s Private Services Team at (416) 489-2500 ext. 4649 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Your loved one may even have coverage for these services through an extended health benefit plan.