The holidays can be a good opportunity to connect with family and start the conversation about the health of aging parents. Sometimes your loved ones’ health problems become more apparent when you are able to spend more time together. Staying with them for a few days can help you to get a real sense of the situation. You may notice that your mother is not hearing conversations, or that the mail is piling up. Or, perhaps your father has lost a shocking amount of weight or he isn’t able to navigate the stairs well. These particular health issues may be easy to spot, but it’s important to keep in mind that concerns about less obvious health issues are not as noticeable and often require candid conversations.
Getting your aging parents to open up about their health can be difficult because they can be reluctant to burden their children. While the role reversal in caregiving is uncomfortable, children are sometimes the first to notice subtle health issues that aging parents overlook. Let them know you care and want to help them achieve their goals. This process may involve several discussions and should be the start of an ongoing dialogue.
Are they keeping up with health care provider appointments?
Aging parents typically respect the advice of their primary care provider. Preventive care only works if parents are getting regular checkups and following through with medications and medical advice. If you see a sore that isn’t healing or you discover a parent hasn’t had the flu vaccine, encourage them to see their provider. Better yet, offer to take Mom or Dad to the appointment and use your time together on the drive to talk about any health concerns. Do you know their medical conditions, what medications they’re on, who their doctors are? Now may be the time to start learning more about these important facts.
Have they had these recommended vaccines?
Seniors who contract the flu are more likely to get pneumonia and become hospitalized, and over 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in people 65 years and older. If everyone in your family gets the annual flu shot, studies show that individuals within the family are less likely to get the flu.
Vaccines reduce the risk of COVID-19, including the risk of severe illness and death among people who are fully vaccinated. In addition to data from clinical trials, evidence from real-world vaccine effectiveness studies show that COVID-19 vaccines help protect against COVID-19 infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 1 in 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime, and the risk of shingles increases as we grow older. A shingles vaccine is recommended for people 60 and older. The CDC also reports that the vaccine reduces the risk of developing shingles by 51 percent and post herpetic neuralgia (PHN) by 67 percent. PHN is severe pain in areas where a shingles rash occurred, even after the rash clears up.
Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV15 or PCV20), which protects against serious pneumococcal disease and pneumonia is recommended for all adults 65 years or older who have never received a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. If PCV15 is used, it should be followed by a dose of pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23), which also protects against serious pneumococcal disease.
Your parents should talk with their healthcare provider about which vaccines are recommended for them. The following resources from the CDC may also be helpful:
Are they staying active?
No matter your parent’s health and physical abilities, they can benefit greatly from staying active. In fact, studies show that taking it easy is risky. Often, inactivity is more to blame than age when older people lose the ability to do things on their own. Lack of physical activity can also lead to more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations, and more use of medicines for a variety of illnesses. Do whatever it takes to support your parents in being active. The National Institute on Aging identifies numerous benefits of physical activity for seniors, including:
- Helps improve strength so they can stay independent
- Helps improve balance and lowers risk of falls and injuries from falls
- Manages and helps to prevent some diseases like arthritis, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and 8 types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer
- Reduces levels of stress and anxiety
- Improves sleep
- Supports maintenance of a healthy weight and reduces risk of excessive weight gain
- Aids in controlling blood pressure
- Possibly improves or helps maintain some aspects of cognitive function
- Reduces feelings of depression
Do they have social connections?
Research has shown that seniors with a strong social network have a better quality of life and experience superior overall health and wellness. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions from heart disease to depression, and even death. People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk. Conversely, people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. Encouraging your parents to volunteer in the community, join a card-playing group, or be active in a religious organization are all good ways for them to stay connected.
Do they have end-of-life wishes spelled out?
Facing mortality, both your own and that of a loved one, can feel unpleasant. But, being put in a situation where you need to make an actual life-or-death decision for a loved one and having no idea what they would want—from being kept alive by artificial means to the type of funeral/burial they desire–could be even worse. This is why we have living wills, and it is so important to have these nearly unbearable, emotionally-draining talks about end-of-life wishes. One painful conversation now will hurt a lot less than having to make an uninformed decision for a loved one in the future. The Conversation Project is a resource for helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care.
AARP suggests using conversation starters to get a difficult discussion going. If you’re uncertain about how to bring up a subject you think needs to be covered with your parent, try an indirect approach such as discussing a book you’ve read, a friend’s situation, or a television show to begin the dialogue. You’ll find many great articles and videos on AARP’s caregiving website and on YouTube channel for communicating effectively. The bottom line is that starting and keeping open dialogue with your parents now will reduce the risk of a health issue becoming too serious before you know about it and are able to intervene. The holiday season is a great time to start talking.