Many families take advantage of the holidays to enjoy time together. While these visits can range from fun to extremely stressful for all sorts of reasons, one common outcome is that adult children who haven’t seen their aging parents in a while to come away with feelings of surprise, fear, shock and even anger. Aging parents often do an excellent job of “hiding” their declining physical or cognitive abilities from their kids, especially when those kids live far away. They do this for a range of reasons – from not wanting their children “in their business” to denial that there is a decline or even the cognitive inability to recognize it. If you’ve recently returned from your holiday visit and find yourself in a bit of panic, here are ten steps to follow to get on track.
- Assess the situation – Do you have a crisis on your hands? An urgent situation? Or an ongoing chronic decline? Your answer to this very important question will determine how quickly you must act and make decisions, and how much collaboration you can afford. The more urgent the situation, the less time you will have to engage in a process to allow your parent and/or siblings lots of input. If you find yourself in this place, make sure that you are in fact the person with the legal authority and responsibility to be making decisions. If you aren’t, then it is imperative that you immediately get the person who is to get involved. If no such person has been named then this should occur immediately if your parent has the cognitive capacity to do so. If not, you may have to seek a court-appointed guardianship or conservatorship..
- Prioritize the needs – First make a long list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, fixed, solved, or otherwise handled. Then, prioritize this list according to what needs to be accomplished right now and what can wait. It is also important to distinguish between wants and needs. Finally consider those things that are best taken care of “on the scene” and which things can be handled from afar.
- Remember that safety must come first – As you are prioritizing, don’t forget that your job as an adult child is to make sure that your parent stays safe. Anything that is now, or could become, a safety issue should be near the top of your list.
- Make every effort to prioritize your parent’s independence – While you are at it, remember that whenever you can make a choice or recommendation that prioritizes your parent’s independence you will generally get less resistance when it comes time to implement. The most difficult aspect of aging for many older adults is the real or perceived loss of independence, so if you can keep your parent safe and as independent as possible it is almost always the better choice.
- Get organized– Now that you have made a prioritized list of all of the current and impending needs, get that list organized. At a minimum, make a sheet with three columns. In the first column, list the needs in order from highest to lowest priority. In the second column, write down your proposed solution if you know it (and leave it blank if you don’t). In the third column, write down the next step you need to take in order to work toward that solution.
- Figure out what resources you have available – Add a column to your list and fill in the resources you already know that your family has. For example, if the issue is grocery shopping and your parent already has a trusted housekeeper who comes once a week, maybe you can simply ask that person to take your parent shopping or do it for them. Alternatively, if the issue is how to pay for a solution, you might know that your parent is a veteran and may be eligible for veteran’s benefits that would cover the cost. If you are not sure what resources your family has to deal with a particular need, leave it blank.
- Make a plan – Take a look at that prioritized list. IF there are lots of blanks, your first step is to begin to fill them in so that you can create a plan. If the list is pretty well populated, now is the time to figure out how you might be able to divide and conquer.
- Build a team for now and later – Identify family, friends, neighbors, volunteers along with other trusted advisors and professionals who will help you execute your plan. If you don’t know these people, network and find them. Once you know who they are, make a comprehensive list with names, contact information and notes regarding who is available to do what.
- Communicate with both your parents and your siblings = Don’t do any of this in a vacuum. It is imperative to include both your parents (assuming they are able to participate) and your siblings in the process of developing the plan. The more inclusive you can be, the less likely you will later face roadblocks.
- Execute your plan!
While each of these steps can seem overwhelming, if you try to tackle them one at a time in a logical order it will be much less so. You may find that you need to do a “deep dive” into one of the steps; if that’s the case, try to assess whether you should stop everything to do so or whether you should simply put that step in the “parking lot” and come back to it after you have moved through the others. Finally, remember that any plans you make and implement will need to be revisited from time to time as your parent’s needs or resources changes.