“What’s the matter with Mom?” Debbie asked angrily.
She was upset because her mother-in-law, Ruth, had not remembered her birthday in October and now, when asked what to bring for Thanksgiving dinner, seemed to have no idea what she was making. Ruth’s daughter replied, “Mom’s doing okay, but she is getting a lot older. There are a lot of changes since you saw her last year.”
This will be true for any of us who are going to see elderly loved ones over the holidays after not having seen them for a period of time. A holiday dinner is not the place to discuss the changes we see but rather an opportunity to find out what kind of help or change of living arrangements might need to be considered.
If you feel surprised or sad about some changes you notice, please don’t show those emotions to the elderly person. It is almost guaranteed that person has known about them far longer than anyone else. They may deny the changes, but deep inside, they know what is happening. More than likely they have worked hard to cover up any problems they are having. I know a woman who found out her parents used to rehearse what to say and not to say to “the kids” (all middle-aged) because “if they think we’re losing it, they’ll put us in a nursing home!”
Another tip: avoid confrontations at a family gathering, but find some time soon after to sit down with your parent(s) to talk about what is needed. Notice I said with them. Depending on a parent’s condition, separate meetings with only siblings might be appropriate, but don’t start there! You would feel “ganged up on” if someone had a meeting about you without you, and so will they. A first time meeting without children and grandchildren should be outside of a meal, in a quiet familiar setting and designed to gather information, not to make decisions. You might even want to hire a Healthcare Advocate to facilitate the meeting. That way, everyone can participate equally with an interested and objective outsider to make note of what each person is saying and to offer observations back to the family.
Sometimes it isn’t even a case of big changes being needed. First, find out what support system is in place among near-by family members and neighbors and what can be done to improve that system. How often do you each stop by for a visit? What chores and errands can you all do to make living at home still possible?
It will often start with the holidays. Pay attention! Adjust your own thinking first. And do everything out of love for these older parents and other relatives who have always been part of your life.