health of aging parents

Holidays present good chance to spot aging parents’ health concerns


December 11, 2019

Talk to your parents about their health and keep the conversation going.


The holidays are an opportunity to connect with family and begin the conversation about the health of aging parents. Sometimes health problems with parents become obvious after spending time away. You may notice your father is not hearing conversations. Perhaps your mom has lost a shocking amount of weight or she isn’t moving well.

Concerns about hidden health issues or preventive care are not as noticeable and often require frank discussions. Awareness and having resources to cope with those concerns can go a long way in addressing smaller health issues before they turn into more serious problems that will challenge the entire family.

Getting your parents to open up about their health can be difficult because aging parents can be reluctant to burden their children. While the role reversal in caregiving is uncomfortable, children are sometimes the first to notice subtle health issues that aging parents overlook. Let them know you care and want to help them achieve their goals. This process may involve several conversations, and should be the start of an ongoing dialogue.

How to spot health warnings and what to do about them

Are they keeping up with doctor appointments?
Aging parents typically respect the advice of their primary care doctor. Preventive care only works if parents are getting checkups and following through with medications and medical advice. If you see a sore that isn’t healing or you discover a parent hasn’t had the shingles vaccine, encourage him to see his doctor. Better yet, offer to take Mom or Dad to the  appointment and use your time together on the trip home to talk about health concerns.

Have they had these recommended vaccines and tests?

Flu shot
Seniors who contract the flu are more likely to get pneumonia and become hospitalized. If everyone in your family gets the annual flu shot, studies show that individuals within the family are less likely to get the flu.

Shingles vaccine
A one-time shingles vaccine is recommended for people 60 and older. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the vaccine reduces the risk of developing shingles by 51 percent and post herpetic neuralgia (PHN) by 67 percent. PHN is severe pain in areas where a shingles rash occurred, even after the rash clears up.

Pneumococcal vaccine
Adults 65 and older should get one-time PCV13 pneumococcal vaccine followed by a dose of PPSV23 vaccine at least one year later. PCV13 and PPSV23 should not be given together.

Are they staying active?
A twisted ankle or a sore hip can lead to a downward health spiral. Do whatever it takes to keep your parents active. Physical activity is one of the foundations of good health at any age. Regular walks in favorite locations will help maintain your parents’ hearts, keep down their weight and promote better sleep.

Are they socially connected?
Enjoying life with friends and family helps everyone stay healthy, regardless of age.

Take time to have one of the most important conversations we can have with loved ones.
The Conversation Project is dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care.


James S Powers, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Director of the Vanderbilt-Reynolds Geriatrics Education Center, contributed to this story.