The Life Transition Blog

Aging Parents: Tips for Making the Most of a Holiday Visit

Visiting your aging parents over this holiday season provides a wonderful opportunity to create memories and to take a good look at how they are doing. Make sure you take advantage of this time to do both, especially if you live at a distance and don't get to see them often.

Perhaps the most important objective for your visit is to create memories. After all, who knows what next year will bring? One way to do this is to resurrect old traditions. Maybe your mom always baked Christmas cookies when you were young, but she hasn't done so in years. That's something you can do together, all the while chatting about the holiday in years past. Another approach is to establish new traditions together. Not only will these new traditions become part of your family lore, but they allow you to engage your parent in a new way. One way to make sure your visit is full of energy is to involve the younger generations in this memory creation marathon.

Of course, if you're like most of us, you have a list of tasks you hope to accomplish for mom or dad while you're visiting. Perhaps Dad needs help cleaning out the garage, or Mom can use some new clothes. Maybe it would be helpful for you to accompany your parent to a doctor's appointment or to take care of some banking. Whatever the task, taking care of some ordinary activities with your parent will give you a good idea of how he or she functions on a daily basis when you're not around.

During your visit, it is critical that you are a careful observer of both your parent and his or her surroundings. Observe both what Mom is doing and what she's not doing. Sometimes your best clue as to your parent's status is noticing the things they used to do with ease that they're not doing at all. For example, if Dad used to love to garden and the yard is a mess, that's worthy of your attention. Look for signs of deteriorating health, such as weight loss, recent ER visits, failing vision or hearing, or an empty refrigerator. Signs of safety or mobility concerns include recent falls, unexplained bruises, medication mishaps, or leaving the tea kettle on all night. Is Dad having trouble climbing the stairs to his bedroom? Does Mom wear her cane like a bracelet? Financial issues might be evidenced by piles of unopened mail, past due notices, or medical paperwork unopened or in piles. Perhaps the home looks different than it has in the past, with lots of clutter or maintenance and repairs ignored.

A holiday visit can be a wonderful time to engage in dialogue about these matters with your parents, siblings, or other family members if you choose the right time and approach. The right time is NOT at the dinner table on Christmas Eve or in the middle of the latke party on Hanukah! Rather, look for less formal and quieter times or even go so far as to create opportunities. A car ride or long walk can be a great time to talk, as can be a mother-daughter visit to the nail salon or spa. And remember, a dialogue means that everyone gets a chance to speak and that you're having a conversation, and that it isn't necessary or even desirable to reach any conclusions. There's time enough after your visit to work through details or logistics by telephone or email.

Finally, remember to use some of your visit to help you plan for the future. Take home a copy of the latest yellow pages. This can be very helpful if you need to marshal resources for your parent from a distance. Get to know a few of your parent's neighbors if you don't already know them and make sure to take their phone numbers home with you. Make a list of important phone numbers, such as your parent's doctors or providers of household repair services. Anything you can do to be prepared for the day to day "crises" will help keep your stress down later on.

Above all, remember to enjoy the time with your family.

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