Using Holiday Visits to Assess Older Relatives

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Holidays are a time when families come together. They can also be stressful for a family that hosts a holiday dinner. At some point, that burden often shifts from older relatives to a younger generation. Relieved of the obligation to entertain, aging relatives can relax and enjoy the gathering.

The younger generation can take advantage of time with older relatives to get a sense of how well they are functioning. While children who have moved some distance from their parents can keep in touch through virtual visits, chatting on video isn’t the same as physical presence. Spending a day with older family members is emotionally rewarding, but it also provides an opportunity to assess a relative’s needs.

Spending most of a day with older family members allows younger relatives to observe them without being intrusive. Nobody wants to be seen as spying on their parents. Without being obvious, however, it’s possible for family members to gauge the physical, mental, and emotional health of their aging relatives.


Holidays provide a natural opportunity to talk about family memories. It isn’t unusual or concerning for memories to slip a bit as people age. However, when a relative seems to focus on particular events in the distant past, perhaps those are the memories that the relative retains. Asking relatives about their recent activities and their interactions with neighbors and friends can help younger family members determine whether there are significant gaps in a relative’s memory.

Memory loss could be a sign of dementia, but it could also be a side effect of medications. Fatigue and stress can also impair memory. Relatives may want to discuss the need for a professional assessment if memory issues appear to be significant.

Physical Appearance

Some relatives have never paid much attention to their appearance. If a relative only shaves when the mood strikes and rarely combs his hair, an unkempt appearance may be normal. However, when a relative has always been meticulous about grooming, a change in appearance might reflect a change in mental status, declining vision, or physical impairments that make it difficult to take care of basic needs.

Weight loss is not unusual as people age. Major bodily changes, however, might be a sign that the relative is struggling to shop for groceries or prepare meals. Weight loss can also be a sign of depression or disease. It is wise to explore significant weight loss issues with the relative’s physician.

Home Condition

Visiting older relatives in their homes creates an opportunity to assess their living environment. Without being a snoop, a younger relative can notice whether the home is tidy, whether it is falling into disrepair, and whether mail is left unopened. While dust or clutter might result from low energy, a messy environment might also reflect an older relative’s lack of interest in his or her surroundings. 

Family members who offer to perform home repairs can ease the worries of an older person who doesn’t want to strain a tight budget by hiring a handyman. When conditions suggest that a relative just doesn’t care about the condition of a home, it might be time to ask whether depression is the underlying problem.

Social and Family Engagement

When a grandparent or great-grandparent seems detached from the family gathering, relatives might suspect that something is amiss. Steering the conversation toward friends and social activities can help family members assess whether an older relative has become socially isolated. Withdrawal from contact with family and close friends is a sign that the relative’s emotional well-being is in jeopardy.

Becoming Proactive

Relatives who spot signs of physical, mental, or emotional problems should come together as a family to discuss an appropriate response. Older family members are entitled to dignity and to make their own choices. There is a fine line between helping and being intrusive.

When an older relative is struggling to remain independent, giving the relative more attention might be the appropriate response. When relatives live within an hour’s drive, setting up a schedule of regular visits might improve the older relative’s mood and restore his or her engagement with family members. Different family members might also be assigned different tasks, such as helping with cleaning, meal preparation, or transportation to medical appointments.

Long distance caregiving is more challenging. Staying in touch is the first step. Many families responded to the pandemic by making sure that older relatives had access to remote communication apps on their cellphones or computers.

Even from a distance, family members can share responsibility for helping an older relative. Monitoring finances, healthcare, and the relative’s activity level can all be done from afar. In the absence of a family caregiver, family members should begin to plan for emergencies and long-term care issues that might arise. 

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