As the rest of you are getting ready to slow down for the holiday season, at Wessels Law Office we are gearing up to be busy. Many non-retail businesses experience a slow-down over the holidays, and retailers feel a January slump. In elder law, on the other hand, we invariably see an uptick in our intake calls between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and especially just afterward.
What causes that?
After experiencing this trend for over 20 years, I can say with a fair amount of certainty what causes it: holidays. Well, not exactly the holidays themselves. It’s that fact that many children return home over the holidays to visit mom and dad. And when they do, they see things that concern them. I call it “Home for the Holidays Syndrome.”
Children, particularly those who have been away from day-to-day interaction with the parents, will notice quite clearly that Dad is not getting around like he used to, or that Mom is getting more and more forgetful. And they become worried. And they decide to call an elder law attorney.
Sometimes, children who are out of the day to day caregiving routine for a parent will return home and develop concerns about how the caregiving child is handling things. Alternatively, they will realize that a parent living alone is no longer able to manage successfully without support.
In the best of situations, family members coming home for the holidays may be able to see things that a parent, or a caregiver child, immersed in a situation every day, has simply absorbed as part of the day to day progression of caregiving.
I will never forget the Thanksgiving in 2007 where I realized that the pleasant phone conversations I had with my mother were filled with fiction – she had the early stages of dementia but also had a Master’s degree in history and was extremely articulate – so she could fill a conversation with chatter and information that she simply, innocently made up when she could not remember reality. When we were all together in person, I realized that she was spinning yarns about things that simply did not happen. I also realized that my father, in caregiving for my mother, had let his own health go to the point where he had a medical condition that was extremely serious. I didn’t live far away, but with a full life of work and childrearing, I thought my regular phone conversations were enough to “check in” on Mom and Dad. That Thanksgiving, my brothers and I realized help was needed, and we began collectively to make a plan to work with Mom and Dad to increase our involvement. (Before that plan even was put into place, my dad’s condition got suddenly worse and then, before I knew it, they were living with me, and my brothers and I jumped right in to our caregiving roles for both Mom and Dad.)
In the worst of situations, family coming in for the holidays may inappropriately confront a caregiver without knowing all the facts or without awareness of the intense amount of effort that daily caregiving involves. Or, family members who have had a history of conflict may choose this situation to pull out the baggage and start the same old family fights again, only with a new excuse: the care of mom or dad. Finally, in the worst of situations a family member from the outside may discover something very wrong with the caregiving situation, such as financial or physical abuse, or neglect.
I simply want to remind anyone coming home for the holidays to visit aging parents that there are resources available. Elder law attorneys exist in every state – look at http://www.Naela.org to find an elder law attorney near you. Also, geriatric care managers can provide an invaluable objective eye on the caregiving arrangements and can help set up services and support if needed. Click here to find a care manager near your family. Finally, the Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of resources available to afflicted individuals, caregivers, and family members. Please spend time visiting the website at www.alz.org and return there often. There is a special section in the Association’s Caregiving resources, with helpful tips on holidays. Click here for the Holiday tips from the Alzheimer’s Association. Planning for a successful holiday involves setting and adjusting expectations, including your own.
I also want to make a point about reactions: In my experience, it is simply destructive for children to fight amongst themselves in front of their parents at the holiday table. Remember that the remaining holidays you will have as a family are dwindling, and you do not want them to become so unpleasant that nobody wants to be together. Cherish these family times, tell family stories and remember traditions, and make a careful plan to discuss difficult topics in a deliberate and caring manner, AFTER the holiday celebration, not during.
Whatever issues you may have had with your brother or sister, now you need to focus on what mom or dad needs. Fighting in front of your parents or parent will accomplish nothing and simply make the situation worse. So stuff your mouth full of turkey and dressing, smile, and clean your plate like Grandma told you.