Haims: Holiday considerations for assisting aging loved ones

With the holidays just around the corner, I thought this would be a good time to provide some tips and suggestions about adult children assisting their aging family members with ways of making the holidays a bit easier.

Perhaps more than any other occasion, the holiday season is steeped in family tradition, with cherished elements that sometimes span generations. However, when aging family members experience declining abilities, involvement in those traditions can become challenging.

Here are some suggestions for making sure our aging family members and loved ones are included in the holiday:

Evaluate what your loved ones can reasonably manage during the holiday season. I would imagine that most of our parents don’t feel comfortable admitting they may no longer feel comfortable making brunch or dinner for large numbers anymore. If you’re not sure what’s appropriate, ask your loved ones.

Determine what traditions matter the most. Something most adult children never do is ask their aging parents if they want to continue hosting holiday traditions, or if they’re holding on to them from habit. Take a moment to consider if it may be easier for your parents if you took on the responsibility of organizing the holiday at their home or if it would be easier to host the holiday at your own home or even a restaurant. You may learn that what matters is different from what you expect, and it may open up new ways to celebrate that are easier and more meaningful.

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Small modifications can make a big difference. If hosting the holiday is important for your parents, perhaps the family can assist by taking care of preparing the table or even bringing the meal over. Or consider catering — most grocery stores will provide full holiday meals at very reasonable prices.

You can use the family serving dishes and favorite china but avoid the preparation and cooking time. Your parents, or loved ones, might make one favorite dish, but the bulk of the work could be handled by others. Instead of everyone staying at the family home, some relatives might stay with extended family to help ease the load of entertaining.

Be flexible. The pacing and timing of events can make a world of difference for our aging parents and loved ones. If someone is in poor health, perhaps changing the time of a family event to earlier in the day would allow them to participate more fully. Marathon family events could be too much to manage — schedule in downtime like a walk or rest as part of the event to allow everyone a chance to recharge.

Look for opportunities to make things easier in a meaningful way. Managing tasks like shopping and decorating can be a challenge for older family members, but there are ways to make tasks easier. Children of age can be enlisted to drive their older family members to shop, giving them a chance for some time together. Perhaps a younger cousin can learn how an older relative does the decorations by helping, or what the secret family recipe really involves. Look for ways to help in accomplishing tasks that also allow older family members to pass on beloved traditions.

If your loved ones have dementia, the holidays can pose some special challenges. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Try to keep to the routine as much as possible. Lack of sleep and dramatic changes in mealtimes can be disturbing to people with dementia.
  • Try to have more visits with fewer people. Instead of bringing many family members over at once, perhaps groups of three or four can come and visit. A smaller group will allow your loved one to put their family members in context more and can be less overwhelming.
  • Share memories often. Loved ones may not remember from morning until night, but they may recall the past very clearly. Ask about their holiday memories, share old songs and photos, and most of all, listen. Being heard can be the greatest gift you can give someone.

What really matters is that everyone gets to enjoy the holidays and their relationships. This is the time to be a daughter, son, grandchild or cousin. Don’t be afraid to change things up a bit. Above all, please keep in mind that life may have changed for our aging parents and other family members. Be aware that while once embraced and even promoted, overstimulation from young children running around and loud conversations may now not be comfortable for our aging loved ones.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. He is an advocate for our elderly and is available to answer questions. 

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