Dear Donna:

I’m concerned about my 83 year old father. He lives alone in his home in Grand Haven, Michigan since my mother died two years ago. I live in Saline, Michigan with my own family. Because of the distance and our kids busy school schedules, we only make it up to see him about every six weeks. I talk to him on the phone every day. He always says he is “fine” and that he doesn’t need anything. But during the last few visits with him, he hasn’t seemed like himself. He has lost a noticeable amount weight and seems much quieter than he’s ever been. I know he misses my Mom. They were married for 64 years. How can I tell if this is grief or depression or something else entirely?

-Christina in Saline, Michigan

Dear Christina:

Long distance caregiving for an aging parent brings unique challenges. It is an issue that adult children across Michigan struggle with every day. And your question is a common one among our elderly. Separating grief from depression or another illness can be difficult. They can all exhibit similar symptoms. And two years isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to grieve for someone you were married to for 64 years. Wow! What a milestone.

To help you better understand what may be wrong with your father, I recommend you consider a few things:

  • Does your father still drive? If not, does he have friends and family close by that help him stay connected to the community? For example, if church was always an important part of your parents Sunday routine, is he still able to go? Socialization can help someone who is lonely and alone for the first time in their life. Many of the residents of our independent living apartments move to a community for that very reason.
  • You are right to be worried about weight loss. It can be a warning sign of depression or an illness, but it can also mean your father isn’t able to get to the grocery store or prepare meals on his own. Can you tell if the later might be the issue from your visits with him? Poke around in his refrigerator and see what you find. Are there healthy foods? Do you see foods with expired date labels? Ask him what is does for meals each day.
  • How is his appearance? Does it look as if he is able to maintain his own personal care? Do you see bruises or other evidence he has experienced a fall or two? If he has fallen and not told you about it, he may be fearful of falling again and may avoid using the bathtub or the stairs or other areas of the house he thinks are hazardous.
  •  What is the condition of his house? Are bills piling up? Does the house look dirty? At 83 years of age, it may be too much for him to keep up with it all and that could be wearing him down.
  • How long has it been since he has been to see his primary care physician? They can be a good resource for family caregivers and a great place to start if you are trying to get to the bottom of what is wrong. Try to schedule a check-up for a day and time you can go with him. If that isn’t possible, you may want to consider calling the office ahead of time to share your concerns with the doctor.

I would also like to recommend one resource that I think might help you in your caregiver role. The Family Caregiver Alliance. They are a part of the National Center on Caregiving. They have online support groups that you may find helpful.

Good luck, Christina! Please keep us posted on how your father is doing.