Traditionally, during this season of holidays, families gather together to celebrate. Often, for adult children, the setting of the celebration is their childhood home where their parent or parents still live. For some families, this is the only time that adult siblings are together in the company of their aging parents, so these gatherings provide a perfect time to evaluate your parent’s current health and think about future needs.
With this in mind, be careful not to descend upon your elders as a group of do-gooders who’ve decided that their parents are getting too old to make their own decisions. This approach will only backfire. However, siblings chatting amongst themselves prior to the visit can alert everyone to be aware of changes in their elders that may signal a need for help.
If your parents seem to want to talk about daily activities that are becoming a problem for them, encourage that discussion. Otherwise, you may want to simply observe your parents and then approach them about your concerns after the main holiday is over. Perhaps a day or two after Christmas you could take Mom aside and gently say, “We noticed that Dad seems to be unable to make sense of numbers, and he was an accountant! Maybe he should see his doctor. What do you think?”
Perhaps you notice that your parents’ refrigerator has a lot of old food shoved to the back or their canned goods are outdated. While you’re visiting, help clean out the fridge, but do it in a light hearted way if you can. You can say, “Mom, you’re getting like me and forgetting old stuff in the fridge! Let’s get rid of this.” However, tuck away that knowledge as a sign that help may be needed.
While signs of dementia shouldn’t be your only focus during this time, it is good to be aware of the red flags signaling cognitive problems. Please remember that some changes are normal so don’t jump to conclusions without thinking things through. The Alzheimer’s Association has a list for use as a guideline:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life. What's typical with aging: Sometimes forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems. What's typical with aging: Making occasional errors when balancing a checkbook.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure. What's typical with aging: Occasionally needing help to use the settings on a microwave or to record a television show.
- Confusion with time or place: What's typical with aging: Getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. What's typical with aging: Vision changes related to cataracts.
- New problems with words in speaking or writing. What's typical with aging: Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. What's typical with aging: Misplacing things from time to time, such as a pair of glasses or the remote control.
- Decreased or poor judgment. What's typical with aging: Making a bad decision once in a while.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities. What's typical with aging: Sometimes feeling weary of work, family and social obligations.
- Changes in mood and personality. What's typical with aging: Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted.
Besides looking for cognitive changes, look for signs of physical frailty. Offer to drive your parents to medical appointments and stay with them during the exam and follow-up. Just keep your tone as “caring,” not criticizing. It’s all too easy to seem bossy and take on the role of parent, insinuating that your parents are childish. Your parents will always be your parents even if you need to start making decisions for them. Please remember the importance of their dignity and the place they hold in your family. Approach them with love and humility. Offer to help wherever they need it. Try to discuss their wishes for additional care down the road before they become too confused to make informed decisions.
Naturally, if the situation with your parents is so shocking that they require immediate help, you’ll so what needs to be done. But if you start early and show your loving concern, you may be able to gently move some help into their lives without them feeling diminished.
Remember that the holidays are for celebrating, not for hashing out every family quarrel. That goes for sibling issues as well as parental problems. If your attitude needs some work, try to adjust your own mood to the holidays. Encourage your siblings to do the same. You may not have a lot of holidays left to celebrate with your parents, so while you are watching for ways that they may have declined and need assistance, don’t forget to have fun. Embrace being a family while you can.