When Visiting Senior Loved Ones – What Do Your Senses Tell You?

Family caregivers have what seem to be a million details to manage — and not just for the care we provide our senior loved ones.

Often they’ll have a house, a job and a family that need your attention, as well as the time you spend with your senior loved ones.

When we visit our seniors, we need to capitalize on the time we spend with them. This is especially true for long distance caregivers who might only talk on the phone or face to face over the internet without actually stepping in their home regularly.

We have to use our eyes, ears and even noses when we connect.

According to data from the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2011 there were an estimated 43.5 million adult family caregivers who cared for someone 50+ years of age. Of those, 14.9 million cared for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

These numbers are slightly staggering in that we know that this year that number has only grown and will continue to grow rapidly.

We know that a family caregiver’s “job” is not easy and the priority is the health and safety of your senior loved one.

How can we capitalize on the time we have to ensure they are safe?

Our Personal Caregiving Story

We cared for our grandparents who lived alone in their own home. Both were declining and we knew they needed more help. Our grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease and our grandmother experienced functional decline.

She struggled to care for him.

They exemplified the traditional family model, in which the husband went to work and the wife did all the necessary tasks of keeping the household running smoothly. These roles continued in retirement. His job became the outside work, gardening and being a handyman around the house.

She continued to care for him and the house until the end.

They volunteered and were active community members until their health conditions caught up with them. That is when we stepped in to assist and provide some level of oversight to be sure they were safe. They didn’t need as much as others do but still needed help.

Like most elders in their generation, they didn’t want to admit their shortcomings or accept outright help. We had to be a bit subversive with some of our actions to keep them safe without them realizing what we were doing on every visit, whether in person or on the phone.

What We Learned Could Help You

There were many things that we did when we visited or talked on the phone. We definitely had our radar up whenever we interacted with them. When we visited their home, which got more and more frequent as time went on, all our senses were on high alert. Things can change quickly, even overnight, so it is important to use all your senses.

Things we did each time — yes each time!

1. Naturally the very first thing we did was listen.

  • How are you?
  • What did you do today?
  • What did you make for breakfast?
  • Have you worked in the garden yet?

2. Then we looked at them.

  • Did he shave lately?
  • Is he wearing fresh clean clothes?
  • Are there any injuries we can spot like new bruises or limping?
  • What shoes is he wearing or are they both in slippers or bare feet?
  • Are their glasses dirty or broken?
  • Did they brush their teeth/dentures?
  • Do they look like they are losing weight?

3. Then we looked at the house.

  • Is the kitchen tidy?
  • Are the beds made?
  • Is the garbage overflowing?
  • Is the bathroom tidy and without a wet floor? Is there enough toilet paper and clean towels? Does it look like it has been used recently?
  • Is there any food left out on the counter?
  • Is there clutter laying around or any other fall hazards?
  • Are there any maintenance issues that need to be corrected like loose flooring or leaking water?
  • Is the heat or air conditioning on, do the rooms feel too hot or cold?
  • Are any windows left open that could be unsafe?
  • Can I see any unpaid bills laying around?

4. We brought them home-cooked food.

Maybe the most important thing I did on each visit was to bring them some home cooked food. I would bring something I know they might enjoy and could both tolerate.

Sometimes I would also stop and get a milkshake or ice cream on the way too or bring a supplement. These special foods not only provided them with at least one or two meals in the week that were nutritious, but also gave me the opportunity to check out the refrigerator. Being in the kitchen and refrigerator was a good barometer to see how things were going when I wasn’t there.

  • What is in there? Is there enough milk and other staple items?
  • Is any food in there spoiled? I would throw away leftovers that were there at my last visit. Nine times out of ten I would find perishable items on the counter like cheese and even the milk. I would make a note of anything I thought they needed and would bring on the next visit.
  • Are the refrigerator and freezer working properly and holding a safe temperature?
  • Is it clean or are there a lot of spilled foods that need cleaning?
  • Are the dishes and pans being cleaned properly?

5. Then we paid attention to our nose.

  • Are there any funny smells anywhere?
  • Is there wash in the washer or dryer?
  • Is there garbage somewhere out of place, like behind the sofa?
  • Is there wetness or mold forming somewhere, perhaps because a window was left open or a spill not cleaned?
  • Have they burned any food? Worse yet, could there have been a fire?
  • Is there a urine smell somewhere, like from the bedding or furniture?
  • Can we smell gas or fumes in the garage?

6. We always used the bathroom.

We could check for signs of a fall, cleanliness or if their medications were being taken. Some were stored here and some were in the kitchen but we would remember to check the bottles to see if they were being used since the last visit or if they needed to be refilled.

7. We checked on their activity.

During our social visit (remember they didn’t know we were checking up on them), we would ask what was on the schedule for the next few days.

  • When do they go to the doctor?
  • Did they get to church?
  • Are they seeing friends or attending an event soon?
  • Who did they speak with on the phone recently, have they talked with family members or old friends? Our grandfather had regular phone calls with family in Canada and if he missed this call something was up.
  • Did they need something? We would ask if they needed anything or something to be done around the house and sometimes got a real answer. Maybe it was time to get the gutters cleaned or put up Christmas lights that they know they needed help to accomplish so we would do that.

8. Before we left, we checked the car and the yard.

Getting a good look at the yard and the usual chores will help you see how they are functioning. Are they still capable or it is too much effort or have they forgotten the tasks they used to love doing?

  • Are there any signs of damage to their vehicle as if they were involved in a fender bender? Be alert to the condition of the car because they won’t tell you about a mishap. Our grandfather hit a fire hydrant (we hope not another car or person) and had his car repaired without telling anyone until we noticed that the striping and molding on the front bumper didn’t match. How he pulled off a repair, we have no idea. Safe driving skills so they or others won’t be injured is very important to stay aware of even if they don’t like it.
  • We also check out the yard under the guise of ‘show me the garden, let’s see what you have growing now’ or ‘do you want me to help fill the birdbath?’

How they respond to you and how your senses react will tell you a lot about how your senior loved one is handling aging in place. It will be a good clue for you to know when more help could be needed.

Remember, it’s all about caring for — and about — our senior loved ones!