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 conser- vatorship.
- 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 al ready 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.