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Take time at Thanksgiving to check on aging parents

NOTE: This post was updated Nov. 22, 2017.

Millions of us will be seeing our parents during Thanksgiving. For many, it's the first they've seen of mom and dad in months.

Family Thanksgiving by NealeA via Flickr CC
Thanksgiving traditionally is a multi-generational celebration. But adult children might need to pay special attention to their aging parents over the holiday to gauge whether mom and dad now need some extra help. (Photo courtesy NealeA via Flickr Creative Commons)

If you're heading to your parents' place this holiday and they're getting up there in years, it's a good time to make sure they're doing OK when you're not around.

All of us want our folks to remain independent for as long as possible, but we also need to be able to recognize when mom and dad might need some help. Let's face it. Mom and Dad aren't likely to admit they need help unless the situation is dire. We don't want it to get to that extreme.

So while on your folks' territory, take the time to observe their general living conditions, as well as their state of mind and moods.

Here are seven indicators that your folks might need some day-to-day help.

  1. Difficulty with daily tasks. Some difficulties are quite clear, such as failing eyesight that makes driving safely a problem, are easy to spot. Also be aware of problems a senior might have with simple in-home actions, such as bathing, climbing stairs or even opening food packaging. I know some of the safety features are a hassle for even relatively young me!
  2. Safety risks. Does mom walk away and leave the water running? We all are occasionally distracted. But when a person repeatedly forgets to turn off burners on the stove or leaves doors open or unlocked, it is time to take steps to ensure their well-being.
  3. Marked grooming changes. A person who was always fastidious but now ignores housekeeping or personal hygiene might need some assistance. This also could be an indicator of something more serious, such as depression.
  4. Changes in personality. Other signs that a person is more than just sad are when he or she becomes withdrawn or has stopped participating in a once-favorite activity. Something as simple as no longer looking forward to a much-loved television program could be an indicator that more care to cope on a daily basis is required.
  5. Differences in diet. If mom or dad can't open jars or cans or other food packages, they might simply not bother with eating. Also look for things like spoiled food in the refrigerator or a diet that is overly repetitive, such as the same dinner menu every night. Not only is that likely not very nutritious, it also could indicate a medical or emotional situation that needs attention.
  6. Weight changes. Those dietary concerns could lead to unexpected weight loss. Of the change on the scales could be a sign of poor nutrition or even of depression. Weight gain could indicate the person is relying too heavily on junk food. Such changes also could be a sign of a physical problem. Regardless, you need to talk with your aging parent about their eating habits and why they've changed.
  7. Neglected finances. Are bills piling up, unopened around the house? If they are opened, make sure they are being paid, and paid on time. The last thing you want is for your parents to have their utilities shut off. It might be time to set up an automated payment system. Also take a look at a bank statement to ensure the balance is sufficient and that there are no overdraft fees for bounced checks. Also check for unusual payments. Older people are often the target of costly scams.

While at your parents, also visit with their neighbors. And if time allows, check with others in their lives, such as their pastors and physicians.

Info and insight from the people who regularly see your folks could either help confirm your suspicions or allay your fears.

Tax help for helping out older parents: If you do discover that you now need to take a more active role in caring for your parents, remember that you might be able to get some help from Uncle Sam.

If you provide enough financial help, specifically more than half of mom's or dad's support, you can claim your parent as a tax dependent.

But in order to do this, you also need to keep an eye on your folks' income. You generally don't need to worry about Social Security benefits, but when your parents have other money coming in, say from a part-time job or investment earnings, that exceeds the tax year's exemption amount ($4,050 for the 2017 tax year; increasing to $4,150 for 2018), they can't be your tax dependent.

Special parental housing considerations: Housing is a major expense for everyone, including senior citizens. If your parents' income is not an issue, the Internal Revenue Code offers some dependency claim leeway here that could help you get past the requirement that you pay for more than half of your parents' living expenses.

Your elderly parent doesn't have to actually live in your house for your support to count.

Any payments you make toward your parent's housing, either in his or her own home, an assisted living facility or a nursing home, count toward meeting the support requirement.

Medical costs count, too: Even if your parent doesn't qualify as your dependent, you still can deduct mom's or dad's medical expenses as an itemized expense on your tax return as long as you provide more than half of his or her support.

These costs include your folks' doctor visits and prescriptions. Combined with your own medical expenses, your elderly folk's medical costs could be enough to help you clear the 10 percent of adjusted gross income threshold required to claim medical deductions on Schedule A.

I know taxes are not high on your holiday dinner conversation list, although it might be preferable this year to talking about the recent presidential election. But do keep taxes in mind as you and your aging parents get together this Thanksgiving.

If you do find your and your parents' roles are reversing and they need more of your help as they age, you'll definitely want to be able to claim all the available tax help that you can.


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