When a Holiday Visit Reveals Your Aging Parent Is Struggling at Home

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Perhaps your aging parent has been having health issues, but when you’ve connected with them by phone over the course of the year, they’ve given you assurances they’re coping just fine.

The trouble is that things may not actually be fine. And that may only become clear when you visit them over the holidays.

A quick look in their fridge may indicate they’re not eating properly. Or loose pills strewn around the house may suggest they’re not taking their medications. Or you may uncover a stack of unpaid bills. Or they might simply look more frail than the last time you saw them. Or their behavior may be “off”.

Sometimes, it’s only when families get together in person during the holidays that these sorts of red flags reveal themselves.

If you find yourself in this situation during the holidays, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • There may be any number of reasons your parent didn’t tell you about these issues previously. Perhaps they didn’t want to worry you. Or they simply wanted to soldier on, hoping that things would eventually get better. Or they didn’t recognize the problem, either because they’d gotten used to living with it or it’s affected their mental abilities.
  • There may be a treatable medical cause for their decline. For instance, there may be an adverse reaction between drugs they’ve been prescribed by different medical specialists. If they’re confused, it might not be a sign of dementia but rather a reversible condition like a urinary tract infection. If they’re experiencing depression, getting proper treatment can make a big difference. That’s why it’s important to make sure they get a proper medical assessment by a physician – like a family doctor or geriatrician – who will look at all of their health issues together.

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  • Your parent may be resistant to receiving your help. They may be concerned that you now see them as frail and incapable. They may even worry you’ll try to coerce them into moving. Avoid backing them into a corner. Invite them to share their concerns. Listen. Don’t debate what they’re feeling. Show that you’re taking them seriously by offering to help them come up with a safety plan that takes their concerns into account. Let them see that you’re on their side. (You’ll find more suggestions in our article, “Tips for Having the Senior Living Conversation with Your Parents”.)
  • If your parent has a diagnosis of dementia, there are additional considerations. If they push back when you identify safety concerns, it’s easy to assume they’re choosing to be difficult, but that may not be the case. Keep in mind that their dementia may be making it hard for them to interpret the world around them (including you) and respond in a “reasonable” way. For more insights on this, check out our article “My Elderly Parent With Dementia Is Being Stubborn”.
  • Find ways to address safety concerns. This may involve making modifications to their home, such as installing grab bars or getting a shower seat. Or it might involve enrolling them in community support programs like Meals on Wheels or an adult day program. Or it could involve getting a health professional, like an occupational therapist, to come into their home and conduct a formal home safety inspection and make recommendations.
  • If you still feel they’re unsafe at home, consider other options. One of those options could be a possible move to a senior living community where you can be assured their health, safety, and social needs will be looked after. If your parent isn’t willing to consider a permanent move to a senior living community at this point, they might be more amenable to a temporary stay of a week or more, especially if you pitch it as a bit of a winter vacation for them. With any luck, the short stay will show them that life in a senior living community is better than they thought it would be, and they’ll be more open to a permanent move. Check out of Stay or Go guide for more ideas.

The holidays can be a stressful time when these sorts of unexpected issues crop up. You may have to adapt your plans on the fly. That said, we hope you still have the opportunity to enjoy your time together as a family.

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