The Medical Minute: Home for the holidays is a time to gauge loved ones’ health

As families gather during the holiday season, it’s important to pay special attention to the older members of the clan.

Dr. Noel Ballentine, a doctor of internal medicine at Penn State Hershey Medical Center who specializes in geriatrics, says the holidays are a prime opportunity to observe changes in both mental and physical health that may otherwise go undetected and untreated.

“Someone who hasn’t seen their parents for a period of time, for example, can note that a change has taken place when it’s obvious they are not functioning as usual,” he said.

It’s one thing if grandma jokes about not being able to remember the name of her great-niece’s new baby, or where she put her keys. It’s another if she unconsciously makes errors with tasks she once completed without trouble.

“It’s amazing to me how long dementia can go on before family members pick up on it,” Ballentine said. “It can literally be years.”

In some cases, forgetfulness and limited mobility are just part of the aging process. But other times, it’s an early indicator of a more serious condition or safety hazard.  “It can be very hard to know, so when you start to see issues, you need to bring it to the attention of a physician to make the diagnosis,” Ballentine said.

Although conditions such as dementia can be difficult to diagnose without watching how things develop over time, a key element is a person’s unawareness of their mental deficits.

“I have patients who come in and say they forget the name of a play or person. Or, they walk into a store and forget what they went there for,” Ballentine said. “Those kinds of frustrating things tend to get worse as you get older, but I don’t think they are necessarily signs of dementia.”

Those who are unaware of their deficit and don’t know their memory is failing are more of a concern.

Falls, poor nutrition and lax grooming habits also can be red flags that an elderly family member needs help.

“Concern for safety is one of the most important things to talk about because accidental injuries are a major reason many people can't remain independently in their home," he said.

Weight loss, improper eating habits or unsafe food also can be troubling signs. “Not getting enough protein and calories to survive and food safety are areas where you need to intervene.”

Financial fraud is another area of concern. Financial issues can range from difficulty balancing the checkbook to engaging scam artists who offer companionship and assistance in exchange for access to an elderly person’s life savings.  

Yet voicing concerns sometimes can be just as difficult as identifying them.

“It really is role reversal with the kids now becoming the parents, and some people aren’t going to take kindly to that,” Ballentine said. “Be direct, yet gentle, and let the elder know you are concerned about their safety. They can’t ignore that argument.”

If an older relative’s goal is to maintain independence, it might mean depending on others to complete some tasks they once did for themselves.

Find more information on these related topics in Penn State Hershey’s Health Information Library:

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

Contacts: 
Last Updated January 14, 2014