Laurie Kappe was halfway around the world, vacationing in Australia, when she got the call we all dread: her stepmother had died and her aging father, who had disguised or waved off signs of his own declining health, desperately needed help.
“It was completely crazy,” Kappe said.
With her father, Lee Gould, in South Florida, one sister in California and another in New York, Kappe and her family were completely caught off guard.
“We had not realized with all that distance that he really had been declining because in the last year he had always been putting his wife on the phone. We’d say, ‘How you doing, Daddy?’ and he’d say, ‘Talk to Annie.’ Or if we asked him something, he’d say he lost his hearing aid,” she explained. “We did not know his health had declined that precipitously. Then it was like, oh my God, what are we going to do?”
With busy lives and sometimes many miles between us, we can all appreciate Kappe’s crisis. Americans are living longer than ever before, with the number of people over 65 projected to rise to 72 million, or 20 percent of the population, by 2030. And while the National Institutes for Health found in 2012 that older Americans are in far better shape financially than they were 35 years ago, they are in worse health, with rates of obesity steadily ticking upwards.
To avoid a desperate scramble when trouble arises, experts say families should periodically assess aging loved ones. And the holidays provide a perfect opportunity.
“With the holidays, people are together,” explained Lisa Miele, director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center for Miami’s Alliance on Aging ( www.allianceforaging.org). “But it’s a difficult topic to address, so I would say take small steps.”
Some signs to look for can be obvious, and observed without stirring up emotions. Others can be more subtle, but just as telling, experts say.
“The major point is to try and be aware, become aware and try to observe and very non-intrusively ask questions,” said Paulo Chalves, director of the Benjamin Leon Jr. Family Center of Geriatric Research and Education at Florida International University. “I would say to do more on the observing and less on asking directly.”
Among the physical signs he suggests watching for: an unsteady gait, balance problems or trouble getting in and out of a chair, which can lead to more serious issues. Also important are signs of frailty such as weight loss, slow walking speed and decline in physical activity. Activities critical to quality of life are also important signposts, such as trouble shopping, preparing meals or making phone calls.
In conversation, it’s important to look at a person’s decision-making ability, he said.
“This will become apparent in conversation, but it’s important to just be aware and not jump to a conclusion,” he warned. “There will be age-related changes to cognition and that’s not necessarily bad.”
Chalves’ own grandmother will turn 100 in January and he believes it’s important to tread lightly. If they’re able, he said, let loved ones make their own decisions.
“We may be middle-aged and healthy people, but we have no idea what it is to live at 90, with some diseases and vulnerability and increasing challenges,” he said. “With my grandmother, I try to understand and be respectful and give her space.”