Changes to Observe When Visiting Loved Ones for the Holiday
An idyllic holiday family setting features the grandparents presiding over a turkey feast with their children and grandchildren around the table saying prayers, laughing and spreading good cheer all around. The grandparents tell tales of their childhood and PG-rated stories from their children’s teen years. The children’s families don’t live nearby and haven’t seen the rest of the family since the last holiday gathering.
The Hollywood version of this scene reveals old family rivalries, humorous dysfunctional relationships and the aging parents’ miraculous peacekeeping between the far-too-competitive siblings.
The unscripted version of this drama features a similar setting, except the aging parents are not able to sort out everyone’s problems. They have their own. Perhaps their physical abilities are now compromised, their health status carries more risk or their mental functioning is more questionable.
The unscripted version of this family drama is not unusual. Many adult children are often surprised by the changes in their parents’ condition. You might observe a noticeable difference in your parents’ abilities from the previous visit, but how should you respond to this change? Does this require action on your part?
Noticeable changes from previous visits might include signs of:
Weakened body condition—stooped posture, bumping into furniture or tripping, difficulty sitting down and rising without assistance, slow gait, incontinence, poor speech, evidence of pain, etc.
Change in habits—altered eating habits, untidy or unclean house, spoiled food in the refrigerator, items put in odd places, etc.
Poor memory—repeating the same question every few minutes, difficulty following directions, etc.
Depression—perhaps the grandparents aren’t as engaged with the grandchildren as they used to be, and are less joyful.
What can be done if you suspect a problem with your parents?
- First, be a compassionate listener. It can be easy to immediately begin trying to solve a problem instead of listening for the source of the changes. It is important to give your parents or grandparents space to have these conversations. Just taking a deep breath will mean a more carefully thought-out response.
- If a parent or grandparent is confused or depressed, first consider their medications. Are they taking the correct dosage? How is it administered? Did they recently start taking a new medication? How long since the prescription was issued?
- If a loved one feels isolated because he or she can’t get out anymore, arrange transportation to the local senior center or to his or her church.
- Suppose one grandparent can’t see well: consider marking kitchen appliances, lighting hallways and exploring gadgets that help with low vision.
- If a loved one is physically weak, arrangements can be made for in-home help to prepare meals and clean up.
- Changes in gait or balance problems can result from medication issues as well as a number of health concerns. In the near term, removing throw rugs and furniture that obstructs pathways is suggested.
If you believe the situation requires more action, choose one sibling to be the point person for the rest of the siblings. Gather as much information as possible regarding your loved one’s health status and legal papers. Have a candid family conversation about health wishes and protocol. Your loved one’s geriatrician or internal medicine doctor will be the most helpful starting point for any health-related issues.
Pay close attention to the context of your loved one’s care situation. The role of a caregiver will grow more strenuous over time. Action may need to be taken if your loved one is getting weaker and your loved one’s spouse is compensating as a caregiver. In this case, both of your parents need to be supported in different ways: support the stronger parent by arranging help for the weaker one.
Scripted situations can often give false impressions of what it is like to make decisions for a loved one. Caregiving solutions often require healthcare professionals and resource guides. If you are unsure of where to begin, a healthcare coach can help sort out what is needed in a particular situation – especially in the case of adult children who live far away from their parents. Perhaps it is a referral to a specialist, assistance retrofitting a home environment, accompanying the parents to the grocery store or assistance with medication management. It’s good to have someone in the loved one’s local environment that knows the terrain and resources.
Not only do loved ones need help with the aging transition, but you may need guidance as well. It is important to remember to help your loved ones maintain independence to the degree possible. If your parents are dealing with the loss of their abilities, you should focus on supporting the abilities that are left and not placing emphasis on what is gone.
Holidays are celebrations of life and love together. It is this that we need to be grateful for as we enjoy our aging parents who made it all possible.
By Barbara Glass