Prepare family members for deterioration of older relatives’ condition

If you see your parents or parents in law on a regular basis, you will be aware of any gradual loss of mobility or cognitive function. Not so for other relatives who haven’t seen the older family members since last Christmas or even longer, owing to Covid-19 restrictions.

Just as we notice how the kids have shot up and are hardly recognisable, deterioration in older relatives’ condition, appearance or behaviour can come as quite a shock.

“Some years ago, I saw an old friend at a Christmas function,” recalls Sue. “I knew he was battling cancer and had frequently called him on the phone to discuss his treatment and progress. But at the get together, I literally did not recognise him. He was terribly thin, his hair was reduced to a few wispy grey patches and his skin was a strange, yellowish colour.

“It was an incredibly awkward moment. I tried to hide my shock, but I’m sure he sensed it. Other people were murmuring among themselves about how terrible he looked. He must have been aware of these conversations, and it must have been so difficult for him. I wish we had been warned ahead of time what to expect, so we could have been better prepared.”

Physical changes

It’s a good idea to prepare visiting relatives for any deterioration in an older family member’s appearance ahead of time to avoid awkwardness or heated debate about the level of care they’re receiving. Noticeable weight loss, especially, can be a big cause for concern, as it may be a sign of serious illness. At the very least, it seems to indicate a poor diet or lack of care.

Your older loved one may unintentionally add fuel to the fire by saying she doesn’t remember when she last enjoyed eating a banana … despite you having watched her eat one for breakfast. Or state categorically that she has not had her Covid-19 vaccination, when you know for a fact that she has. She’s not being deliberately willful – she just doesn’t remember.

It’s a good idea to take a photograph of your older relative ahead of the festive get together, and share it with family members so that gran’s physical appearance doesn’t come as a complete shock. Let them know if she has seen a doctor, and whether the changes in her appearance and behaviour are normal, or something to be concerned about.

Warn family members ahead of time that gran now walks with a stick or walking frame, or needs help getting to the loo. Or that grandpa refuses to shave or brush his hair as a result of the onset of dementia, rather than a lack of care and assistance.

Changes in behaviour

If your older relative is affected by dementia, they may behave inappropriately or have mood swings with outbursts of anger, anxiety or suspicion towards family members with whom they previously shared a close bond. They may not be able to remember loved ones’ names or how they are related. This can be distressing to younger family members. Warning them in advance helps prepare them and soften the blow.

Memory loss may mean your elder relative asks the same question over and over again – or no longer joins in the conversation at all. This can also be related to hearing loss.

How to respond to an elder with failing memory

Even if the older person is suffering from some form of dementia and is unable to communicate well, they can still pick up emotions. They will sense your impatience and find it upsetting, because they don’t understand why you are cross with them.

Although it’s difficult not to get irritated when you’ve heard the same story five times, try to remain calm and loving. Remember this is someone you love, and you want them to enjoy the time you have together. Let them go ahead and tell the same story again.

Turn off the TV or the music if your elder is having difficulty concentrating on what you are saying, or suffers from hearing loss. Speak slowly and use shorter sentences and words, with time in between for the elder to process what you are saying. Instead of asking, “What would you like to drink, mom?” offer simple yes or no choices. “Would you like some tea?” Or “Would you prefer juice or tea?”.

Resist the temptation to speak for the older person or finish their sentences for them. Interrupting or excluding your older loved one sends a message that you do not believe they are capable of holding a conversation, which damages their self esteem and makes them even less likely to join in in future.

Choosing suitable gifts

If your family will be exchanging gifts, finding something suitable for the older adults can be challenging. You may feel that they already have everything they need, or that they have limited opportunities to enjoy gifts if they seldom go out. Here are some suggestions that are sure to please your loved one:

Gifts that bring comfort – Soft shawls or fleecy knee rugs are highly appreciated gifts, as are warm slippers, socks, pyjamas and dressing gowns. Body lotion is another popular item as older people often suffer from dry and sun damaged skin.

Gifts that bring back the good memories – Elders suffering from dementia may still have excellent long term memory and will love custom made family photo albums or pre-loaded digital photo frames of days gone by. Music is another powerful way to help them reconnect to the past.

Games and crafts – Many older people enjoy the challenge of word games and puzzles, so a bumper puzzle book can keep them entertained for days. Your older relative may appreciate a pack of large print/jumbo playing cards or a jigsaw puzzle. Adult colouring books are also popular, allowing elders to complete frame worthy works of art in a relaxed and stress-free manner.

Love is the best gift

Even if your older relative seems disconnected and behaves strangely, he or she still understands love and care. A warm hug, or simply sitting with them and stroking their arm or holding their hand is one of the nicest gifts you can give.

Tell them about your life and what you’ve been doing, regardless of whether they respond or not. Or listen patiently while they ramble through a very long story about something that happened long ago – even if you’ve heard the story before.

Your time, your patience and your caring are all precious gifts. Enjoy this family time