Visiting Older Parents for the Holidays – A Practical Guide

Adult Children Visiting Older Parents During the Holidays may Find Themselves Dismayed…and Stressed

If they are visiting older parents and relatives several time zones away for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or XXXX, adult children often return from holiday celebrations even more tense and overwhelmed than when they left. Mom may seem more unsteady on her feet. Dad may seem to be forgetting a lot more. The household may seem more disorganized than you remembered, and less clean. And should Uncle Jack still be driving at night…or at all?

Aging Solutions, a Bay Area geriatric care management company, offers these guidelines for adult children who may be worrying about their aging parents, based on more than 20 years of hands-on help to families and seniors.

First, resist the instinct to jump in with both feet immediately to solve every problem you may think your parents are having.

“Holidays are rarely the time for taking drastic action, and anyway, the physical or mental decline of a parent is a touchy subject,” says our CEO, Terri Abelar. “You may be told, loudly, that it’s none of your business how they’re doing. That kind of conflict can ruin the holiday for everyone in the house.”

Adult children will better serve their families by enjoying the holidays while quietly observing some key areas:

  • Look for any changes in your parents’ ability to carry out simple daily tasks, such as brushing their teeth, taking out the garbage, or putting away dishes. Do they perform these routine tasks with more effort or less regularly?
  • Is old food piling up in the refrigerator?
  • Do your parents walk through the house freely, or are they touching furniture and walls to navigate? If so, they may be having balance problems.
  • Observe—or ask—which medications your parents are taking and see if they are doing so methodically or haphazardly. Medication conflicts and overmedication have become epidemic among seniors. When Aging Solutions clients describe sudden changes in a parent’s behavior, memory, speech patterns, or balance, our first suspect is a medication conflict or overmedication. Fortunately, once identified and addressed by a professional, a parent’s functional problems can be resolved in a few days.
  • To drive or not to drive—that is the most frequently mentioned concern when adult children go home. If it is clear that a parent poses a driving danger you’ll want to deal with that without delay. But understand also that taking away the independence that an automobile represents will be a battle. If you don’t want to be the bad guy who takes away the keys—and someone will have to be—find outside help such as a doctor or family friend.
  • Really listen to what your parents say and how they say it. This kind of listening means not tuning them out, or cross-examining them because you’re worried, or imposing your own expectations.Specifically, listen for vague phrases or clichés—such as “Oh, you know, same as ever,” or “Can’t complain, I guess”—that signal resignation or passive acceptance, and are repeated regardless of context. Sometimes people with diminishing mental faculties use this verbal technique, called masking, to hide their increasing confusion. If they are confused, that’s a problem you need to know about—although again, the holidays aren’t the best time to confront it.
  • Pause to give yourself a break and to tell yourself not to panic if what you see at home over the holidays alarms you. Remind yourself that when you get home, you’ll begin to carve out a long-term plan with the help of siblings and others. If the problems appear too numerous and complex, consider help from a reputable, experienced geriatric-care manager or consultant, who can bring objectivity, specialized knowledge, and practical tools to help your parents and your whole family.