More than 53 million Americans were expected to travel home during the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday. This annual pilgrimage to our childhood home over the winter holidays is a cherished tradition for most of us. As our parents age, however, those visits can be unsettling, especially when we observe unmistakable signs of physical or cognitive decline.
When you were home for Thanksgiving, did you notice that things were a little different? What did you see? Piles of unopened mail, unpaid bills, or notices from creditors? An empty refrigerator or one filled with decaying food? Dents in the car? Did you notice changes in personal hygiene habits, weight, eating patterns, or mood? Did you see more confusion or forgetfulness? Is your loved one having trouble managing medications or missing doctors’ appointments? Were there unexplained bruises?
If you see these signs, what should you do?
I’m an elder law attorney, so this is a question I hear frequently. When people come to me with these concerns, they often want to take matters into their own hands. They jump to conclusions, assuming the worst about their parents’ health. They want to intervene right away. I almost always advise against taking quick actions based on limited observation. There may be perfectly legitimate reasons for the changes you observed. If your siblings attended the holiday gathering, ask if they saw what you did. If your observations match those of your siblings, or if they have observed things that you haven’t, you will have an ally who can help you decide what to do next.
If you’re not certain that there are problems, the best thing you can do is watch. Spend more time with them. If you can’t be there in person, use Zoom or FaceTime. Consistent contact will give your parents something to look forward to and serve as a reminder that you care.
It may also be helpful to chat with your parents' neighbors, friends, and other members of their community to see if they have noticed troubling changes. When you’re at your parents’ home, introduce yourself to their neighbors and give them your phone number and email address. Ask them to contact you if they become concerned.
You may also want to talk to your parents’ health care providers. It might be that your parents haven’t been telling their doctors the whole truth about their situation because they’re afraid that they might have their driver’s license taken away or be told they need to be moved into a nursing home. By talking to their doctor, you can provide important context that will allow the provider to do a better job of treating your parents. You might also discover things that your parents haven’t shared with you.
At some point, you’ll want to talk to your parents about your concerns. When you do, get ready. Parents often respond in a fearful and confrontational way when approached by concerned children. I’ve heard people say that they don’t want anyone whose diapers they’ve changed telling them what to do. That’s why it’s best to talk about your parents’ situation in a way that enables them to identify the problem and come up with potential solutions. Instead of making proclamations, ask questions. Find out what their preferences are. This avoids putting your parents on the defensive, which may make them more willing to share the truth about what’s going on.
Sometimes getting an impartial third party involved can help diffuse the opposition. If that’s the case, consider a situational assessment. That’s one of the services we provide here at Truhlsen Elder Care Law of Nebraska. Janice Fitchhorn, our firm’s elder care coordinator, will visit your parents’ home to assess care needs, safety, mobility, and other factors. If your parents could benefit from assistance, we can help you locate, hire, and find payment sources for the care and services your loved one needs.
While it can be painful to admit that the people who have always been there for you now need your help, dealing with this now will be much less stressful than reacting to the crisis that almost inevitably happens if you wait.
If the holidays have left you concerned about your parents, Truhlsen Elder Care Law of Nebraska can help you put together a plan of action. Just give us a call.