Your family gets together for the holidays. You expect one of those wonderful Hallmark moments but instead…disaster. There are always issues at family get-togethers (Clinton v. Trump, Sue’s gravy v. Tom’s), but when it comes to adult children and their aging parents, the landmines seem to be everywhere. Here are four ways to turn holiday challenges into opportunities—for you, your siblings, and your aging parents.
Mom doesn’t seem herself. She seems quieter than usual, or a bit confused. That stuffing she’s been making for 50 years isn’t quite right. What’s going on, and what do you do?
Most importantly, recognize that many things could be happening. Mom could be depressed, showing early signs of dementia, or suffering from drug interactions or a urinary tract infection. Help her make an appointment with a trained geriatrician or even a geriatric psychiatrist—and go with her, if possible. These symptoms could mean a long-term problem, or they could be easily resolved. Here are some ideas from dementia expert Anthony Cirillo about what to look for.
The pigeon problem. You’ve heard the story: One daughter has the primary responsibility for helping mom, who lives just a few miles away. Her sister lives across the country in, say, California. The daughter from LA flies in for the holidays and, due to a toxic mix of good intentions, guilt, and lack of first-hand knowledge, immediately starts giving advice. Caregiver sister is furious. Holiday is ruined. Care managers call it the pigeon problem: Sister flies in, poops on everything, and flies away.
What to do: To start, communicate regularly with siblings about how mom is doing, and not just during holiday visits. California sister should appreciate that her caregiver sister is doing the best she can. And caregiver sister should recognize that her California sister is not always wrong. My pal Anne Tumlinson wrote a nice blog about sibling issues here.
The talk. You realize things are not going well and that the family needs to address important issues that you’ve been ignoring—advance directives, legal powers of attorney, questions of whether mom and dad ought to stay at home or consider moving.
What not to do: While you may feel an urgent need to confront these issues, the holiday table is probably the worst place to have this conversation. How would you feel if in the middle of dinner your kids told you that you can no longer care for yourself? Defensive and angry? Not exactly the way to start a tough discussion. And never begin with, “Mom you need to….” You may have read that you are now “parenting your parents.” You are not. No matter how frail your mother is, she is still your mother and you are still her daughter. Telling her what you think she needs is not going to work.
What do you do? First, above all, respect your mother’s wishes, as long as she is cognitively able to make choices. It is her life, not yours. Second, make sure you and your siblings are on the same page (see the pigeon problem above). Third, find a quiet time and place to talk. And finally, don’t expect to resolve all these complex issues in one sitting.
The car keys: This is a special issue. The driving question usually goes like this: “I was visiting for the holidays and dad drove us to the supermarket. I’ve never been so scared in my life. He blew through a stop sign and forgot how to get home. Is it time to talk about whether he should still be driving?” Well, if you are asking, the answer is almost always ‘yes.’
For most Americans, losing access to the car means losing independence and freedom. And that’s not easy. Instead of “we’re taking away the keys,” try talking about how dad’s driving could endanger others. It still will be hard, and he may insist he can drive as well as ever. But keep at it.
Make sure he and mom have transportation alternatives so they don’t feel trapped at home. Perhaps you can set up an Uber or Lyft account for them. If you can afford it, put it on your credit card. If they can’t manage the web, there are fee-based services that will set up these rides for them. They just need to make a call and the services will do the rest.
There are no magic fixes, but these ideas may help you navigate what can be difficult days ahead.