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There’s No Place Like Home For the Holidays?

They call it  the ‘holiday reality check’.  It’s more like a lightning bolt.  Here’s how it goes:  we talk to our aging but independent parents all year long, a couple of times a week.  They sound fine, great really.  No, they won’t Skype.  But they do keep up.  Then, it’s holiday time.  We fly in for a quick four-day whirlwind visit, presents in tow, dinner reservations made, local friends to see.  We get to the house.  And the folks are not fine.  They are not fine at all.  In fact, they are so not fine, it’s scary.

What happened here? Who are these people?  And what have they done with our parents?

According to Paula Span, NY Times blogger and author of When The Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions’, what happened is that our parents aged.  And because we don’t see them much, the difference a year makes in the lives of our older relatives takes us by complete surprise.  We lull ourselves into thinking (hoping?) that with some good drugs, hearing aids, maybe a cane and some supplements, they might last forever.  But they won’t.  So here we are, ready for Christmas cheer and embarrassing stories  from our childhood, and we find instead a dirty house, a fridge stocked with nothing but little packets of condiments and moldy yogurt containers, cat litter that hasn’t been changed in months…you know the rest.

Experts report that the week after Thanksgiving invariably brings an onslaught of frantic calls to geriatric care managers all over the country from panicked adult children who’ve just spent time with their elderly parents and relatives.  The ‘kids’ know something is wrong, but they don’t know what to do – and, of course, they have to return to their own homes.

We all know the big warning signs, the ones that tell us a parent or friend or loved one needs nursing home care or other full time assistance.  It’s when they have trouble with an activity of daily living, such as bathing, using the toilet, dressing and grooming, transferring or moving from one place to another (from a chair to the bed, for example), walking or eating.  But we aren’t talking about these so much.  It’s the littler things, the odder things that set off the from-out-of-nowhere alarm bells.  The parents may not need a nursing home, but they can’t go on like this.

What are these more subtle signs? The ones that totally freak us out, especially when we haven’t seen the folks in a while?  Things such as changes in their appearance:

  • Noticeable weight loss (which might signal difficulty shopping for proper food, cooking or eating)
  • Sloppy appearance or poor personal hygiene (could mean depression or physical difficulty bathing, dressing and grooming)
  • Bruises on the body that could signal they’ve fallen or bumped into things, indicating they are having trouble navigating their way about.
  • Burns, maybe showing they are having trouble cooking.

Or changes around the house:

  • The yard and garden are not maintained as they normally would be.
  • The car has dents and scrapes, indicating impaired driving skills.
  • The housework is not being done.  Dishes are not washed.
  • The carpet has new stains, from spills or other mishaps.
  • The house smells of urine, indicating incontinence.
  • Cookware has noticeable burn marks, meaning that perhaps food has been left forgotten on the the stove while cooking.
  • Unopened mail, unpaid bills.
  • Unfilled prescriptions.
  • Low or poor quality food supply.

It’s this kind of evidence that calls for immediate damage control. No more denial.  No more being polite or politically correct.   Keep in mind that more often than not, at this stage, the fixes are not hugely dramatic or elaborate.  So, sit down and have that talk you’ve been dreading.  And keep in mind, too, that this talk will be an ongoing one, a process more than a once-and-for-all thing.  Your parents will be defensive at first – they do not want to burden you – but once you get going, it will be okay.

What are the issues, the trouble spots?  Is a care directive in place? How about taking on a bill paying service to keep track of the monthly expenses and be sure that everything is paid on time?  What about a cleaner or some help with routine chores: shopping, mowing and raking up, the laundry?  How about a trained home help profession for help with bathing and grooming chores like washing hair, trimming nails?  What about a transportation program?  These are all small things, but can make a world of  difference.

You may not be able to be there every day or even every season, but knowing that your aging loved ones are not isolated or alone and are being looked after with their dignity and independence intact is invaluable.  And it just might restore the meaning of the holidays, too, once the reality check is over.  Because the season is not about huge gift bows on luxury cars or perfection or sugar-coating everything.  It’s about counting our blessings, and cherishing and taking the best care we can of our loved ones.  Always.

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