Warning! Do NOT bring up sensitive eldercare topics (like giving up the car keys and moving out of the family home) during family holiday visits. Without proper preparation, parents, siblings, relatives, and friends of your parents can and will turn against you – then what?
It is far better to spend your time together during the holidays making observations and gathering evidence that parents need help of one kind or another. Knowing for certain that something must be done is the goal. No more guessing. No more assumptions. Gathering concrete facts that will be used as the foundation for conversations going forward is as far as it should go during your visit.
Before getting together.
Before the family gathers together there’s plenty of planning to be done. Make time for frank and open discussions with brothers and sisters and close relatives. Let them know that you are thinking about Mom and Dad’s long-term well-being. Remind them that you are all in this together and that everyone has something to contribute.
During a visit to your parents’ home.
It’s all too easy for parents to cover up declining abilities and illness on the telephone, in email exchanges and during quick visits. Perhaps one or both have slowed down. One of them may have become the caregiver for the other. What’s more, shaky hands, unsteady feet, and a failing memory is more difficult to ignore during longer get-togethers.
Take advantage of every moment of physically being together. Make observations and listen for clues that things are changing – physically and emotionally. Importantly, pay attention to how you are feeling when you start to take notice of the situation at hand. If you feel in the pit of your stomach there is something wrong, you may be right.
Things may seem normal on the outside. Some changes are barely noticeable. Here are some signs that indicate whether parents may need part-time or full-time help in their own home or might need even more than that:
Unopened mail – failing eyesight, recurring memory lapses and hampered writing abilities are some of the reasons why bills go unpaid and mail unopened.
Spoiled food – a refrigerator full of spoiled food or cupboards full of cans and boxes long past their shelf life might indicate parents have little energy to shop or clean.
Forgetfulness – If they tell you a favorite story for the 10th time, don’t worry. If they forget to take medications, forget what they’re doing or saying in mid-stream, there might be a problem.
Stockpiling medications – perhaps they’re pinching pennies. Check expiration dates. Not taking medicines properly also could reveal memory problems.
Substantial weight loss or gain – could indicate bad eating habits, depression or serious health problems. If parents don’t fix the nutritious meals they used to that’s a definite sign of a marked change.
Untidy house and appearance – dirty dishes and clutter, and an unkempt appearance such as soiled clothing and infrequent bathing, may be clues of forgetfulness, lack of energy and depression. If the house has never been neat, it might not be a problem.
Lacking interest – if parents aren’t interested in things and hobbies they used to enjoy, the problem could be simple, such as Mom needs new glasses to read or Dad’s leg hurts and he needs to see a doctor. Perhaps they are running out of money.
Problems with mobility – bumping into furniture, trouble getting out of chairs and cars, and falling may indicate illness or vision problems. Side effects of medications can also cause dizziness.
Unsafe driving – frequent fender-benders are signs of slowing reflexes and possibly vision and hearing problems. Check the car for dents and scratches.
After the holidays.
The next step is to make a date with your parents to talk with them about your observations. Discussions of this sensitive nature are almost always upsetting to everyone involved. Don’t wait too long.
The best approach to opening up a dialogue with parents is to ask questions. Choose your tone carefully. Something like, “Mom, I noticed you were having trouble going up and down the stairs – have you talked to anyone about that?” is more effective than telling her to see a doctor.
When parents respond to your questions, give them your full attention. Curb the urge to interrupt. When they feel heard, they will most likely tell you more. Silence is a powerful communication tool.
Unfortunately, no matter how carefully you approach your parents communication breakdowns are bound to occur. If there is an argument or they tell you to mind your own business, take a deep breath and softly say, “I love you and I’m on your side. Let’s talk about this later.” And let it go at that.