Tips for Seniors

Tips for Long-Distance Caregivers: Health Changes You Can See, Hear, and Read

Jan 29, 2018

Written By Sharon Roth Maguire, MS, RN, GNP-BC, BrightStar Care

Many families see each other in person only a few times a year, often around the holidays or special events. Health declines that have developed over time may seem to have appeared out of the blue. When you can’t get together in person regularly, you can still keep an eye on your loved one’s health by learning what to watch for and listen for when you communicate.

Changes You Can See

Today’s families have a range of visual communication options to stay connected. Sending picture messages and selfies via texting or social media is easy for many aging adults to pick up. More technologically savvy individuals can use video calling on their smartphones, such as FaceTime, Skype, or Facebook video calling, to communicate.

When you use these visual options, take a look at your loved one’s appearance. Certain health conditions can cause physical symptoms that are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. In particular, watch for changes in:

  • Expression: Does Dad seem disengaged, emotionless, or fatigued?
  • Hygiene: Does Mom look clean and tidy like usual or unkempt?
  • Mobility: Does your loved one have trouble moving or standing during the conversation?

If you can, also try to get a glimpse at their surroundings to gauge how well they’re keeping up with household chores. This is important to make sure their home environment is hygienic and free of safety hazards, such as exposed cords, rugs, or a cluttered floor.

Related reading: Help Your Loved One Avoid a Devastating Injury from a Fall

When you’re face to face or using video calling, it’s easier to gauge a loved one’s well-being. But there are cues to listen or read for when you’re visiting by phone, text, or email that can signal a decline in a loved one’s health.

Changes You Can Hear (or Read)

Listen to your loved one’s voice. Do they seem calm and comfortable, or stressed and uneasy? Is there a quiver in their voice? Are they stuttering, slurring, or stopping to clear their throat more than usual? These can be signs of emotional or respiratory conditions that a doctor needs to check.

Also, think about the structure of your conversations. Does your loved one repeat the same question over and over or forget that they’ve discussed a topic with you a few times before? While all of us are forgetful sometimes, frequent memory issues could be a sign of early-stage dementia, depression, or medication side effects.

Everyone has bad days, but if your mom or dad seems particularly negative, ask questions to figure out why. Perhaps they’re frustrated about something or don’t feel well and don’t know what to do. Especially in the winter, we see clients who have the “winter blues,” also known as seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder. Reduced sunlight and increased isolation during the winter can cause people to feel depressed or sadder than usual. Offer a listening ear, and call their doctor or home care nurse if you’re worried about their emotional state.

How to Start Talking About Your Concerns

While we want to make sure our loved ones are safe, it’s important to be mindful of their feelings. Conversations started with the best of intentions can make a senior feel defensive about their capabilities and independence. Often, seniors don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones and will try to tough out situations to avoid asking for help.

Try framing your conversation with questions, not accusations. Some questions you could ask are:

  • ​How are things going with your health?
  • Have you been able to winterize your home?
  • We’re working on our gutters. How are you doing with that, Mom?

If your loved one dodges the question or insists everything is fine, be patient. You could say something such as, “I know you’ve been meaning to get a few projects tackled around the house, Mom. Could I call someone to help you get them done?” If your loved one refuses your help, make a mental note to check up again soon. Remember, many older adults do just fine on their own or with minimal support, and many are fiercely independent. When you offer assistance, consider sharing how happy you feel when you get to help.