The holidays are fast approaching and soon we’ll all be gathering together with our families to share meals and spend rare quality time with our loved ones. It can be a fun, exciting, and stressful time of year. For many people, the holidays are when we first notice that there may be problems in our families, especially as parents or grandparents grow older. You may notice that the home is not as clean and tidy as you remembered, or that mom or dad is having a lot more difficulty moving around the house. Maybe the laundry isn’t getting done because it’s on a different floor that is no longer accessible. Or maybe there isn’t any food in the refrigerator because driving to the store is getting too difficult. Or perhaps important appointments or medications are being forgotten or skipped.
Most people need more support as they grow older, but because we live in a culture that emphasizes independence above all else, it’s extremely difficult for people to ask for help or even to accept help when it is offered. This can make it very hard for family members to raise concerns about health, safety, or isolation with their elder relatives. But the truth is that these conversations are too important not to have, even though they are difficult. Most people when asked say that they want to remain at home as long as possible and even die at home. But most people don’t die at home. Why? Because they don’t tell their loved ones what they want when they’re able to express their wishes, and they don’t develop a plan for making their wishes a reality. As the saying goes, if you’re not making a plan, then you’re planning to fail.
So, how can family members facilitate these important conversations around the holidays?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that no two families are alike. What works for one person or family might not work for you. Consider how you have broached difficult issues in the past. What worked (or didn’t work) then? What can you learn from these past experiences that you can apply to this situation?
Second, remember that your elder relative is an independent adult, even if they now need help. There is a tendency in many families to treat their elders more like children than grown-ups simply because they may have developed some cognitive difficulties or may require assistance with activities of daily living. But with the proper support, our elders can still make appropriate decisions on their own. “Supported decision-making” is an emerging concept that seeks to balance respect for the autonomy the individual with the need to protect the individual’s health and safety. Remember, if we’re lucky we’ll all get old someday, and when it’s your turn, how will you want to be treated? Try to find a way to support your loved-one’s wishes while also ensuring their health and safety is provided for.
Third, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. It can be difficult for someone who may be struggling mightily to hide the fact that they need help to be confronted by a child or grandchild with an offer of assistance or a remark of concern. They may feel shame, sadness, or anger about their situation, which may cause them to be defensive or in denial. But by showing genuine concern and allowing the person time to process their emotions and reactions, you may make more progress than if you simply confront the person and never bring it up again.
Fourth, get help if you need it. Sometimes enlisting a trusted advisor or friend to speak with your loved one can help. Maybe your elder relative doesn’t want to talk to you about it, but they would talk with their pastor or rabbi, a close friend, their banker or lawyer, their physician, a different relative, or someone else they trust. Most people have at least one person that they trust and whose opinions they respect and admire — seek out that person to help you.
Finally, use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Instead of saying, “you’re forgetting to take your medication and you’re driving me crazy!,” try saying, “when you forget to take your medications, I get afraid that you will become seriously ill and I’m afraid of losing you and seeing you suffer.” Using “I” statements shifts the conversation away from judgment and blame. And by depersonalizing the problem, “I” statements open up space for both sides to come up with creative solutions without anyone feeling defensive.
Once you are able to identify your loved one’s wishes for their care as they age, it’s important to take the next step and make a plan. How will you pay for care if they want to remain at home? Under what circumstances would you all agree that staying at home will no longer work? If transitioning out of the home, what housing with services options are the best for your loved one? Are there assets that need to be protected from long term care costs to provide for other family members? Engage the services of an elder law attorney to help you answer these questions and make a plan that honors your loved one’s choices and ensures that they’ll be safe and healthy.
And, may you and all your loved-ones share a safe, healthy, and happy holiday season!