Going home for the holidays used to be a chance to share family traditions with your children and reconnect with family and friends around the dinner table. But as your parents age, going home might take on a whole new purpose: to check for warning signs that Mom needs help.
It can be hard to watch your parents experience changes that accompany aging. Maybe your mom used to be the queen of her kitchen, but now she asks you and your sister to cook the bird on Thanksgiving. Or perhaps your dad used to walk through the house singing Christmas carols, but now he mostly sleeps in his recliner.
Watching your parents lose interest or ability in the things that used to be easy and natural is hard. It’s normal to grieve the loss you’re experiencing. It’s also normal to feel guilty about being conflicted when it comes to thinking about caring for them and whether or not that’s a responsibility you can take on.
If you’re worried about frail parents, you might be tempted to show up to their house with a to-do list as long as Santa’s Naughty or Nice list: Clear out the basement and start downsizing. Install grab bars in the bathroom. Pay the bills. Take them to a doctor's appointment.
Although that might give you peace of mind, it might also make your parents feel as if they’re losing their independence or that they’re being a burden.
Here’s a look at four other things you shouldn’t do when you go home for the holidays to visit aging parents.
Show Up Without a Plan
You don’t want to show up and take over, but you also don’t want to show up without a plan to help, especially if you only come home once or twice a year. So before you go home, call ahead
and let them know that you’d love to help out with some home and yard maintenance things that might make living at home easier for your parents.
Keep in mind that just because your dad hasn’t cleaned out the gutters since last winter doesn’t mean he wants to ask for your help to do it. So you might need to be on the lookout for tasks you think would be difficult — but then suggest you do them together.
Although this approach might take longer than doing it yourself, let your dad take the lead and supporting his self-worth by encouraging him to share his expertise.
Act Like It's Your House
Before you start rifling through the mail or throwing things out that you consider to be trash, remember whose house you’re in. Your parents don’t want to be parented by their children, and when you jump in without asking permission, it can leave them feeling frustrated and confused.
Instead, be discreet as you search for warning signs that living alone has become too much to handle. Look for moldy food in the refrigerator or pans with excessive burn marks on them. Observe how the house looks and if there are any changes since your last visit.
Don’t ignore signs of distress or mental confusion, but still respect the fact that you’re a visitor in your parent’s house.
Grill Them with Questions
There’s a fine line between caring and controlling. When you grill your parents with questions — Did you take your medicine? When was the last time you went to the doctor? Have you paid your electric bill yet? — it can feel more like you’re suffocating them than helping them.
Instead, ask two simple questions: “What do you need?” and “What do you want?” You might not want to talk about it. Your parent might not want to talk about. But understanding what matters to your mom or dad can be a big help down the road.
If you need help broaching the topic, try these suggestions for how to have the conversation with your elderly parent.
Focus on Duty, Not Love
Remember that spending quality time with your parents is more important than any task on your to-do list. Try not to let worry distract you from enjoying being together. Find ways to engage with your parents, whether that’s making a home-cooked meal together, playing a game of cards, watching the home team play football, or taking the time to have the kinds of conversations you don’t have over the phone.
Staying connected to family helps improve everyone’s sense of well-being, and that sense of well-being will help alleviate any thoughts of guilt that can often drive a deeper wedge between you and your parent.
In between family dinners and holiday traditions is the perfect time to look for signs that your parents are still doing well or that they’re starting to need help. If you know what to look for, you can be confident that you’ll recognize when it’s no longer safe for your parent to live alone.
Download this checklist for a list of 40+ things to discreetly observe about your parent’s health, mobility, home, safety, finances, and support system.