Holidays and Aging Parents

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Holidays and Aging Parents

By Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, R. N., Attorney at Law, and Dr. Mikol S. Davis

If you live a distance from your parents, and you don’t see them but a few times a year, the holidays can be especially stressful. Never mind that the family may already have stressful holidays just being together. Discovering that your aging parents are showing signs of “slipping” can be a very upsetting matter, beyond the “normal” holiday stress. If you’ve always gone to Mom’s house, and she puts together a holiday meal, or party, you may not recognize at first that anything has changed.

As we know, holidays are a notorious trigger point for family conflicts, as people who never got along are expected to do so because of the season, because they are able to act civilly toward one another for a short time, for their parents’ sake, or for other reasons. Sometimes hidden behind the usual problems of family togetherness is the lurking difficulty of aging and how it affects our parents. Signs of their aging affect our own sense of our mortality, too, and may lead us to unconsciously or consciously ignore what we see.

Mom may have forgotten a traditional part of the meal she always serves. Perhaps she did not clean the house. Dad may have forgotten to shave. One or the other parent may have lost too much weight, may seem confused, or have other signs of not being quite as you are used to seeing them. The holidays and visiting aging parents bring problems into focus, because we are spending time face-to-face. For adult children who live at a distance, and who visit parents infrequently throughout the year, the opportunity to see the slow progression of aging over time may not be there. Then you’re there for a holiday celebration, and it hits you: they’re getting so old!

Sometimes, noticing a problem with Mom or Dad causes a small “alarm” to go off in one’s mind. There is a sinking feeling that something is wrong. The aging parent may seem cheerful, or unbothered by what the adult child sees. The aging parents may be in great denial about changes their bodies and minds are undergoing.

What should we do? If Mom’s weight has gone down (or up) too much for comfort, do we say something? If we see unopened mail from the bank, the IRS, or another official-looking source on the hall table, is it okay to speak up and find out why Dad didn’t notice it or open it?

We say, yes, the adult child must speak up, especially an adult child who is a psychologist. Clearly, all of the things mentioned above can indicate changes in memory, cognitive impairment, or depression. Bringing up the subject of your concern is one thing; finding the right time to do it is another. The best of professional training can go out the window when it’s your own relative you need to confront about your concerns. Wait for a private moment. If one doesn’t present itself, create one. If you feel that your judgment about what is going on could be clouded by your own emotions, or an historically difficult relationship with a parent, talk it over with a colleague. None of us have all the answers, and our community of fellow psychologists can be an invaluable resource.

No one likes to face the signs of aging, either in ourselves, or our aging loved ones. But the risks associated with signs of decline we may observe are pressing. Billions of dollars are stolen each year from vulnerable elders to professional thieves, who love to prey on those with mild or moderate cognitive impairments. The risk of financial abuse is just one of the reasons it may be time to act upon your observations on a visit for the holidays.

Physical and mental decline lead to other serious problems, such as falls, which put more elders in nursing homes than most other causes. Starting the conversation about the changes of aging may best be handled by you, a professional member of the family, if your parents, themselves don’t start it. There are burdens that come with the psychologist’s skill set, and taking leadership in families about potentially difficult subjects can be one of them.

This is not the time to simply get back on the train or plane and hope that things will be better the next time you visit, months from now. Your actions now can help avoid a later crisis for you, and for your aging parents.

If you find yourself at your parent’s home for the holidays, and you are worried about what you find when you get there, don’t let it go. A loving act of speaking up and taking the next step can save your parent from crisis, or from an unchecked downward spiral later on.

© 2009 Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, R.N., Attorney at Law and Dr. Mikol S. Davis,

Last Updated ( Monday, 09 November 2009 16:56 )

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