The phone lines of AgeWell Pittsburgh become very busy this time of year, according to Maxine Horn, whose job it is to answer those calls.
Adult children who come home to spend Thanksgiving with their aging parents may start to notice some changes, she said, and reach out to AgeWell Pittsburgh, a partnership of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the Jewish Association on Aging and the Jewish Community Center, for help.
Between November and January, AgeWell Pittsburgh sees an uptick in calls of about 20 percent, said Horn.
“This kind of recognition is like a process that may begin at Thanksgiving,” said Horn, information and referral specialist for the organization. “Adult children who haven’t been with their parents for a little while — maybe two or three months — need to be alert to changes.”
It was subtle changes in the behavior of his mother-in-law, Shirley, that led Patrick Burke and his late wife, Beverly, to come to the realization that she needed some help.
Shirley had been living alone in an apartment in Green Tree for years, enjoying her independence as well as frequent visits from her daughter and son-in-law who lived in San Francisco.
But several years ago, when she still was in her early 70s, she fell in her apartment and broke her hip. She could not get up and was found hours later by a friend who came to check on her.
Shirley had surgery to repair her hip, but she was different after that, said Burke.
When Beverly came to visit her following the surgery, she noticed several dents in Shirley’s car. Although Shirley had always been fastidious about her appearance, she now looked unkempt. And while Shirley was a meticulous bookkeeper by trade, she was now forgetting to pay her bills, and her apartment was a mess, with unopened mail piled on the dining room table.
That’s when they knew that it was time to get some help for Shirley, said Burke, who lost his wife to cancer a short time ago and is now solely responsible for managing Shirley’s care.
A friend suggested the Burkes get in touch with AgeWell Pittsburgh, he said. That agency was able to refer them to the resources they needed to guide Shirley through the transition of allowing others to help care for her.
“They sent us to an elder care legal specialist who helped set up the correct paperwork,” Burke said. “They recommended ComfortKeepers, a company that escorts her to doctors’ appointments and shopping. And they even recommended a company to move her from her apartment in Green Tree to the Covenant,” a senior living facility in Mt. Lebanon that is now called Concordia of the South Hills.
Her social worker, Stefanie Small, who is on staff at JF&CS, keeps tabs on Shirley for Burke and makes sure she is getting the care she needs at Concordia.
“I don’t know what I would do without Stefanie,” he said.
There are several subtle signs that a parent may need some extra care, said Horn, including difficulty walking or reading and increased clutter around the house. More obvious indications of the need for help include a refrigerator filled with rotting or expired food or the absence of basic foods such as milk or orange juice. Personal grooming issues, such as spotty clothes or neglecting to bathe, can also be signs of trouble.
“This could be the beginning of a pattern,” Horn cautioned.
If one finds a parent who exhibits any of these signs, “AgeWell Pittsburgh is the perfect place to call for free information and a referral line,” Horn said.
In some cases, Horn might suggest having an assessment done by a social worker in the parent’s home, to provide a “good picture of what’s going on in real time and to suggest what action should be taken.”
For example, if one’s mother says she is no longer interested in preparing food, arrangements could be made for meals to be delivered through Mollie’s Meals, a kosher food service through the JAA. If Mom has a hard time getting up in the morning, it may be time to bring in a caregiver for a few hours, Horn said.
She cautioned that adult children should include their parents in any decision to be made about that parent’s care.
“Our mission is to keep people in their homes as long as they’re safe,” she stressed. “We don’t suggest they move out unless there is a health situation that makes it dangerous.”
Horn also stressed the importance of ensuring continued socialization for older adults.
“Look at how Mom spends her day,” she said. “Every opportunity for socialization is very important for the health of the senior.”
A personal emergency response system should be considered for any senior who lives alone, she said, and AgeWell Pittsburgh has simplified the process of finding the right one to meet an individual’s needs.
“Children really worry about parents falling and no one being around to help,” Horn said. “Parents are usually reluctant to get one of these systems, but it gives children a piece of mind knowing that with a touch of a button, help can be obtained.”
Children of aging parents need to be attuned to their instincts when visiting after a period of absence, she added.
“Sometimes you just sense that something is not quite right,” she said. “You can’t put your finger on it. I’d go with that gut feeling.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.