01/02/2013 01:58 EST | Updated 03/04/2013 05:12 EST

Give Your Aging Parents a Priceless Gift this Christmas


If your parents are seniors you can give them a priceless gift this Christmas. On your next visit you can put the wheels in motion to help them live as independently as they can in their home, and prevent accidents that commonly happen to seniors and cause unnecessary pain and suffering. In so doing, you can also avoid an early and abrupt start to your care-giving duties. The warning signs of elder decline and tips on how to build a safety net that follow will help you plan for what lies ahead.

Warning Signs When Seniors Need Support to Continue Living in their Home

With advancing age, seniors typically step onto a ladder that only goes down, as physical and/or mental health decline. Their joints become stiffer, they lose bone and muscle mass and stamina. Their reflexes and balance aren't as good either and their eyesight and hearing often diminish, so they are at higher risk of a fall and injury. As well, chronic diseases may start to appear, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and dementia. They may also lose a spouse so may not be able to perform their household tasks.

At this point, seniors need a watchful eye from their family because it is usually the small changes, such as difficulty with household chores, cooking, taking medications or driving that indicate that they are transitioning from living independently into the supportive-living stage of decline. The following are some of the warning signs to look for that indicate when seniors need support to continue living in their home.

 Dirty and cluttered house and laundry piling up.

 House maintenance and repairs neglected inside and out.

 Fridge empty, or food with long past expiry dates or spoiled.

 Problems preparing food.

 Significant weight loss or gain.

 Personal appearance being neglected.

 Medications expired, unfilled or not being taken.

 Unopened or unpaid bills.

 Driving unsafely.

Sons and daughters, neighbours and friends can all lend a hand, or find volunteers or hired help in the following areas:

 Chores and repairs around the house.

 Grocery shopping and meal preparation.

 Putting their medications in a daily pill dispenser.

 Assistance with paying bills.

 Fall-prevention initiatives, such as installing a grab bar in bath tubs, and removing area rugs and mats without rubber backing.

 Transportation to medical appointments.

It is also important to put a safety net in place to ensure your parents get quick access to medical attention when they are alone in their house. Regular checks by phone or in person will help. Giving a trusted neighbour a key to their house is a good idea, in case a parent can't be reached by phone or by a knock on the door. As well, installing a personal emergency-response system can provide 24-hour a day access to an ambulance. The safety net should include ready access to assistance when seniors are unable to handle a problem on their own, such as replacing a light bulb in a ceiling light fixture.

Warning Signs When it is Unsafe for a Parent to Live Alone

The risk of a medical emergency, such as a bad fall or a stroke increases on this steadfast stepladder of decline. It may be a temporary setback, but most often it is the beginning of a more rapid decline in health. With increasing inactivity and frailty, seniors decline to the assisted-living stage. By this time, seniors may also have cognitive or multiple health problems and usually can no longer drive, cook, or take care of their home. The following are some of the warning signs when it is unsafe for a parent to live alone:

 Leaving stove or lights on.

 Difficulty bathing and getting dressed.

 Losing balance.

 Difficulty walking, climbing stairs or rising from a chair.

 Lack of initiative and social withdrawal.

 Memory loss affecting daily activities.

 Inability to plan their activities.

 Complex debilitating illnesses requiring medical supervision.

By this stage, seniors and their families should consider alternative accommodations such as living with a family member or in an assisted-living retirement residence, where they can receive round-the-clock care. Seniors could also benefit from family involvement to help make choices about which nursing homes they like best, just in case they need one. That way, if they reach the dependent-living stage they will be able to get on the waiting list quickly for their preferred nursing homes.