Pay close attention to your aging parents this holiday season. Does the normally tidy house now seem neglected? Are there any signs of hoarding? Do you notice memory problems, confusion or physical unsteadiness?

Discovering that a parent's physical or mental health is declining can be heavy on the heart. But a gift of family gatherings this season can be discovering problems while they're manageable, and getting help.

"The first thing we tell our clients is, don't panic," says Byron Cordes, president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, and a geriatric-care manager in San Antonio, Texas. "Come up with a plan."

Feeling overwhelmed may prompt you to spend money on the wrong things, such as full-time care, when your parent just needs delivered meals or someone to run a few errands. Here are some tips:

1. Assess needs: Ask your parents' physician what their physical and mental deficits are -- if they allow you to sit in on appointments or consent to the release of their medical information. You can send a letter to the doctor. If you have power of attorney for a parent's health care, attach a copy, says Linda Fodrini-Johnson, a geriatric care manager in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Consider hiring a geriatric care manager -- usually a social worker or nurse with additional training -- for a consultation or assessment. They can help find services to help seniors remain independent. A one-time consultation costs about $150. An assessment could run $500 to $700, Cordes says.

2. Take stock of benefits: Visit, run by the National Council on Aging, to find out if your parents are eligible for any benefits, discounts, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps or other programs.

A search for a Medicare beneficiary who owns her Arizona home and has three chronic medical conditions turned up 11 programs, including a discount drug program, free legal assistance and caregiver respite. Through the Minnesota LinkAge line, the state's seven Area Agency on Aging offices offer information on in-home support, transportation, adult day care, skilled nursing facilities, senior nutrition programs and scores of other services.

If your parent is a veteran or the widow or spouse of one, visit the government-sponsored website, That site also offers phone advice regarding local veterans' resource centers, which can be helpful when applying for benefits (1-800-677-1116).

Your workplace also may offer elder-care referral services or cover need assessments for a parent.

3. Timing is everything: Medicare doesn't cover most long-term care costs. Medicaid covers them under certain conditions.

If your parent needs Medicaid coverage, timing matters, says Gregory French, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys ( and an elder-law attorney in Cincinnati. Eligibility can be delayed if your parent makes cash gifts or transfers assets within five years of applying for Medicaid.

In a best-case scenario, families work with an elder-law attorney before the aging parent loses the ability to make decisions or sign documents.

"The No. 1 goal is quality of life and independence and staying at home as long as possible," French said. "By doing that planning, you're increasing the likelihood that that happens."

4. Visit your parent at different hours: If you bring in helpful services or move your parent to an assisted-living facility or nursing home, visit at different hours to see how new arrangements are working out. No matter how good, helpers give better care when they know you're paying attention.

Staff reporter Warren Wolfe contributed to this report.