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What is Benevolent Probing and How Will it Help my Aging Parents?

As the adult children of aging parents, you may be hyper-alert to your parents’ physical and mental health. In-person visits are opportunities to assess your loved ones and to pick up on signals of cognitive decline. But as the holidays roll around this year, COVID-19 has caused another potential risk in the health and safety of aging adults as they are less likely to have in-person visits from loved ones who can pick up on red flags of declining health. 

Early research from Destination Analysts expects holiday travel for Americans this year will decline from last year’s 53%to only 28%. As the holidays are often the only time that families get to visit aging relatives and notice behavioral changes, this decline in travel rates signals that extra measures need to be taken to make sure our loved ones are safe.

Benevolent probing is a simple way for adult children to assess their loved ones’ needs from a distance. This tactic combines careful observation and considerate conversation to gauge a loved one’s health and wellness in a respectful, non-threatening way. It is common for seniors to strongly guard their independence and feel threatened and afraid when topics arise that risk the lifestyle they are comfortable living. 

Benevolent probing minimizes that feeling of threat while making it possible for you to accurately assess how your parents are doing. 

Benevolent Probing Areas for Discussion

Activities of Daily Living

Without in-person visits, you may feel that you miss out on opportunities to assess your loved one’s ability to care for themselves or perform daily tasks like personal hygiene, house cleaning, cooking and taking medication. From a distance, you can use video calls to help assess how they are doing without sounding like you are prying. 

  • Gauge your loved one’s personal hygiene on the call. Does it look like they are struggling with shaving, weight, dressing or bathing?
  • Ask for a house tour to see decorations. During the tour, watch for signs of declining health in the form of clutter, hoarding, lack of traditional decorations or a decline in cleaning behaviors.
  • Ask about prescription medications if it can be worked into the conversation. If health is brought up and you can get your parent to show you prescription bottles, you can ask about dosages, how the prescriptions make them feel and expiration dates. 


Memory loss is easier to gauge on phone calls and video calls. Be aware of signs of memory loss by asking simple questions. What did they do last weekend? When was the last time they spoke to another family member? Signals of memory loss can include short and simple answers to your questions like “Uh-huh,” “Yeah,” and “Hmmm,” or them repeating themselves.


Even on phone calls, you can assess your loved one’s mobility. But video calls can achieve more in this area. Pay attention to cues of difficulty in mobility. Does your loved one talk about bruises, tripping, falling or getting injured in other ways? Do they mention struggling with walking? Do they make elaborate sounds while moving that indicate pain or difficulty? Do they mention dings/scratches on the car or car accidents? If you are on a video call, pay attention to their movements and balance. 

Social Engagement

If your once social and perky loved one suddenly seems uninterested in social activities, this could indicate depression, which raises concerns about their overall health. Depression can impact cognitive function and daily living activities, which are very important to the overall health and wellness of seniors. Ask questions about social activities. Many social activities are canceled due to COVID-19, so offer alternatives to in-person activities. Online church groups or social hangouts are great alternatives. Virtually any type of class is available online and you can even take live tours and shopping experiences of places around the world. Perhaps your loved one just needs a ride or a companion to participate in an activity.

If you notice anything concerning, write it down, discuss with siblings and take some time to think about how to approach the situation. Don’t react right away. The holidays are a time to enjoy and you may need time to make a plan. 

Remember that there are amazing resources for senior care that allow your loved ones to remain independent while still receiving care, support and companionship. SYNERGY HomeCare is committed to providing the support and resources that seniors need, plus extra care around the holidays. We strongly encourage adult children to use benevolent probing as a tool of care this holiday season and to lay some worries to rest—or to help create a plan for your loved one that will meet their individual needs.