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Parents Aging

What should you do if a visit to your aging mother and father over the holidays makes you worry about their health and safety?

If you haven't seen your aging mother and father since the last holiday season, you may find yourself worrying about parents aging (not so gracefully).

Signs of trouble: forgetfulness, weight loss, mishandling finances, or anything else that's unusual, says Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care services at Care.com. Family Goes Strong talked with her to find out more about what to look for and what to do. Excerpts:

What's the best way to spot meaningful changes in your parents' condition?

Sometimes there are overt signs like unpaid bills are stacked up. It may be attributable to just the upheaval and excitement of the holidays, or it may be something else. It's helpful for siblings to compare notes.

What if you and your siblings disagree?

That happens a lot. It's one of the No. 1 reasons for conflict around senior care. It could be around perception of need. It could be around what are the best options for care. It also can be around money. We actually do family meetings. Often one of the ways we start the conversation is without the parent present but to share perspectives. An objective professional can provide guidance. When they're concerned, getting a medical evaluation is really essential.

What other clues are there?

It really needs to be kind of a pattern. Maybe someone who was very fastidious, all of the sudden, their house is a mess, their clothes are not clean. My dad [who is 85] has had dementia for over 10 years. He was kind of an absent-minded professor type. But when he got lost coming home, we all said, "We don't think this is part of his normal pattern."

So look for anything that's doesn't fit with your aging parent's regular personality?

Right. My mother [who is 83] often doesn't hear things, and she'll get more anxious. But there's nothing significant that changes from her core level of functioning, so I'm not worried. [Now we] do takeout for Thanksgiving. I haven't won the battle of paper plates! My siblings and I got together and said, "How can we have a holiday with mom?" We consult with families and help them simplify some of the more arduous tasks and at the same time retain important rituals and traditions. We have rituals with my dad in the nursing home. We go visit him and bring our musical instruments. We sing with him.

But how can you tell if your parents are in trouble – or just getting old?

Sometimes it's hard to do that. Signs of disengagement, real apathy, forgetting that the turkey is in the oven, the house is disheveled. It's trusting your gut. Decline is not necessarily a part of getting older. You might slow down, but you don't have to lose your ability to think and function physically.