Home for the Holidays

Concerned About Your Parents’ Wellbeing? Keep These Tips in Mind!

Thanksgiving is, hands down, my favorite holiday. A day set aside for gathering with loved ones to indulge in delicious food, prepared with care and representing decades of family tradition, while expressing gratitude for the many blessings in our lives always feels like a special treat.

When I was growing up, it was the one day of the year I knew with certainty I’d be spending with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Times spent with my extended family were always filled with fun, laughter, and deep connection. And afterwards, there were always “debriefs” – opportunities for smaller groups to share amongst themselves what they’d learned over the course of the gathering. This helped to ensure that everyone was up to speed on what was going on in everyone else’s lives. If there were worries or concerns, those were shared as well.

I know my family isn’t unique – many families have similar follow up conversations. When elderly relatives have been a part of the gathering, their wellbeing often becomes a popular discussion topic. It’s not unusual for various family members to have made very different observations. One may say, “I think Mom looks great!” while another counters with, “really? I thought she looked thin and pale,” and another adds, “all I know is that her mashed potatoes were terrible this year – it’s not like her to serve something like that!”

It can be difficult after the fact to figure out what to do with these inconsistent observations. In most cases, all have some element of truth. With regard to the “Mom looks great!” comment, it’s important to ask what constitutes “great”. If the answer is, “she’s lost weight and she wasn’t stressed out about the horrible potatoes,” then the objective part of the observations is the same – the difference is in the opinions or interpretations around those facts.

When family members talk in advance and approach holiday gatherings with a shared awareness of what to be on the lookout for, the subsequent conversations can be a lot more productive. When clients ask me what types of “warning signs” could indicate that their loved ones may be declining, my biggest recommendation is to pay attention to the following CHANGES

In Appearance – Examples include weight loss or gain, lack of attention to personal hygiene,  grooming or clothing, unsteady gait or balance issues, difficulty walking, or unexplained bruises.

In Environment – Red flags may be neglected housework, household items in need of repair, excess clutter, unopened mail, late notices, uncashed checks, or unexplained damage to automobiles. Challenges with taking medication as directed or in refilling prescriptions are also important to note.

In Social Relationships – To gauge this, ask about activities involving others, paying particular attention to any changes in frequency of getting together with friends, attending worship services, performing work or volunteer activities, or entertaining.

In Emotional State – Be aware of change in overall mood or outlook, extreme mood swings, low energy or loss of interest in hobbies, or acting in a manner that seems particularly out of character.   

In Cognition – Examples include experiencing difficulty with following instructions, getting lost in familiar places, repeating questions, exhibiting confusion about time, people and places, having trouble following the thread of a conversation, or struggling to remember how to do things that previously came naturally. Reliance on lists, notes and reminders (IF this is a change from previous behavior) may also be an indicator of change in cognition.

In their Partner – It’s not uncommon for someone whose spouse or partner is experiencing a physical or cognitive decline to step in and offer assistance. When they want to protect their partner from having others find out about their decline, they can be very discreet, making these signs hard to see. Examples include one partner performing a household task or chore that the other has always handled, one finishing sentences or answering questions for the other, or one paying particular attention to the other’s physical safety (offering a hand when they get up, watching them walk up and down the stairs, or not leaving them alone.) In other cases, one partner may display what appears to be an unreasonable impatience or frustration, or they may exhibit signs of exhaustion.

Again, it’s the change that raises the red flag – not the behavior itself. If your mom has always worn wrinkled clothes or your dad has never been clean shaven, noticing those things now is probably not a cause for concern. If your grandparents have always had expired food in the fridge and stacks of bills on the table, those things alone aren’t warning signs. If your cousin has always finished the stories her husband starts, that’s most likely just a dynamic of their relationship. If your aunt has never been able to remember your kids’ names, there’s no need to be alarmed that she can’t remember them now.  

 If you do notice significant changes, and especially if others are able to confirm the changes you’ve observed, you’ll most likely want to consider your next steps. Generally speaking, having conversations with other relevant family members and with the loved one you’re concerned about, followed by a consultation with their physician, would be reasonable starting points. Please reach out if you find yourself needing help in figuring out how to approach these conversations!

Wishing you a Thanksgiving filled with deep connection, gratitude and love!



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