If you have aging parents or elderly friends, the start of a fresh year is an ideal time to reassess their living situations.

Yes, we have busy lives. But before this month is out, take time to visit your aging loved ones and conduct an in-depth review of their home environments.

As people age, subtle changes take place; aging persons might be unaware of these changes, or they may be in denial. Either way, an outsider’s perspective can reveal issues requiring action.

Elders who are living independently — either in homes or apartments — are of special concern. Be an advocate and assure their safety and wellbeing.

You may think otherwise, but you also need to check on elders living in retirement communities. While living independently (as opposed to assisted-living), conditions can deteriorate. Staff become aware of an individual’s behavior or cleanliness only if these issues become problematic for the rest of the retirement community. Thus, periodic reviews by advocates and family are necessary. 

Observe while you visit

Observe how your loved ones walk. Are they shuffling or unsteady? Balance decreases over time, and elders are prone to stumbling and tripping. For the aging, broken bones are serious life events. 

Make sure walkways are clear of extraneous objects. Ask first, but, if needed, rearrange the furniture to accommodate ease of travel. 

Area rugs are best removed. If this idea meets resistance, tape area rugs to the floor so the edges cannot roll up, causing a fall.

Aging eyes have trouble seeing in dim spaces. Replace burned-out bulbs. Make sure areas where tasks are performed are well lit — the kitchen, laundry and bathroom. Add light fixtures to reading areas. 

Make sure interior and exterior stairways are well lit. Check for loose or broken stairs. Install railings, and/or make sure existing railings are securely fastened.

Many falls happen in the bathroom. For safe access to the shower/bathtub and for ease of getting up and down from the toilet, install grab bars. Consider installing an ADA toilet.

If access to the home is becoming problematic, a ramp could be the solution. A number of homebuilding unions/associations have ramp-building programs for people with disabilities. A list of local resources can be found on the Washington Access Fund’s website: www.washingtonaccessfund.org/resources/home_mod_funding.php.

Is laundry being done regularly, with proper detergents being used? Is your loved one wearing clean clothing? Is the kitchen and refrigerator clean and free of food debris? Is the garbage going out? Bathroom clean? Are house and yard maintenance ongoing? If not, have a discussion; see if your loved ones are open to accepting help.

Medications and health

Do your loved ones understand why they are taking medications? Are meds being taken as prescribed? Consider using daily-dose pill containers that are refilled weekly. 

When was their last physical examination and review of medications? If it’s been more than a year, help them schedule a medical appointment; ask if you can accompany them. Their doctors will cover numerous issues, potentially making the medical review overwhelming. If you are there to ask questions and take notes, the recommended action steps can be followed precisely.

Examine the varieties of food being consumed. Are they eating a fresh, healthy diet? Find out if they need help going to the grocery. If they are open to ordering groceries online, home delivery is widely available in Seattle. Eligible seniors can receive free, nutritious frozen-meals delivered to their homes from Meals on Wheels; call Senior Services at (206) 448-5767 or visit seniorservices.org/foodassistance/MealsonWheels.aspx. 

Action team

If this annual review results in a series of action items, put together an “action team.” This team can be a combination of family members and friends, plus hired help. With regular, qualified assistance, your loved ones can safely remain at homes for many years.

If you hire help, remember elders are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse; hire wisely. Reputable in-home care agencies conduct thorough screenings of their caregivers and provide ongoing supervision. 

Keep in mind that if you hire an independent caregiver, you are liable for payroll taxes, screening, supervision, insurance, finding a replacement when they are sick, along with many other problems that could arise.

Warning signs

Excessive forgetfulness or argumentativeness can be indicators of early stage dementia. These behaviors indicate the need for a thorough medical/nutritional review by a doctor. There are many resources from which to choose when seeking advice on caring for a loved one with dementia. 

A cautionary note: In the elder-care arena, there are many individuals and organizations masquerading as experts. There is no specific certification or licensing for “elder-care advisors.” Therefore, when seeking the advice of an elder-care expert, use long-established organizations or a reputable and experienced home health-care agency. 

Never ignore indicators of problems. However, if you conduct a thorough annual review interspersed with occasional checkups, problems can be addressed and your aging loved ones can safely enjoy the comfort and familiarity of home.

MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Beck was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as Washington’s 2012 Small Business Person of the Year. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.