Family gatherings over the holiday season are often the first time that we notice that an older family member is becoming frail and may need some extra help. The signs can be subtle. You may notice piles of unopened mail or unpaid bills, or newspapers still in their plastic wrap; the generally well-maintained garden or house looks untidy or neglected; they have lost weight; the fridge is empty or has plates of spoiled food; there are unexplained dents on their car; there has been a noticeable decline in their personal grooming; or they are unsteady on their feet and have difficulty getting out of their chair. It might be that they have stopped going out to previously enjoyed activities, or they seem more forgetful or confused than usual, even when undertaking once familiar tasks.
It might be that you become aware for the first time that your father is now the primary carer of your mother, or your aunt has become your uncle’s full time carer. It might be that they need some additional help, or a break from their caring role, to ensure their own physical and emotional wellbeing.
Sometimes the older person may not be aware of the changes happening, or is reluctant to acknowledge they need help. But it may be time to talk sensitively about what might be helpful to support them to live independently and safely at home.
It might be time to explore accessing subsidised help through the government’s My Aged Care; or it might be timely to consider privately purchasing some extra help. It could be that the family Christmas gathering provides an opportunity for extended family members to organise to visit more regularly and to assist with key tasks, or provide important social contact and company.
It is not always easy getting everyone on the same page. Even the closest of families can become undone when worried about the wellbeing of an older family member. It is not uncommon for family members to have different views as to what is best – sometimes contrary to the wishes of the older person themselves. I felt fortunate that my three brothers and I worked well together to support our parents in their later years. Partly this was because we trusted each other, we played to each other’s strengths and were all fully committed to respecting my mother’s strongly expressed wish to remain in her own home.
If you are starting the conversation, it can be helpful to be up front, and express what you have observed, why you are worried. Importantly, be focused on what the goal of the older person is – and be clear that your focus is to help them achieve their goal.
It is important not to be patronizing – it can be a difficult conversation, where we are all driven by a certain fear of what might be happening. But this is one that is important to have, sooner rather than later, as a little bit of help early can make the difference in enabling an older person to stay living at home independently and connected to their community for longer.