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‘Home for the holidays’

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I’m sure the discussions have begun at your home also. In the same sentence as “Who’s going to be here for Thanksgiving?” comes “Where are we going for Christmas?” “When can everyone make it?” And sometimes (under our breath) “well why does that family need to get together on that night?” Sometimes painful discussions, but always well worth all the effort because the real point is we all want to be with family over the holidays.

My family traditions growing up were very strong and I’m sure that’s why I have to have the who, where, when questions answered before I can proceed with anything else. For 51 out of the first 52 years of my life, I was at Grandpa Dude’s house for Christmas Eve. The people were always the same, except the crowd kept getting bigger and bigger. We still seemed to all “fit” into Grandpa’s house. The menu was always the same, until we nixed the lutefisk, realizing it was why Grandpa was getting ill the week after Christmas.

After dinner was cleaned up “and not one second before!” the kids would go caroling around the small town of 32 people, yes, we took a census, and magically when the carolers returned, Santa would show up at the front door. Originally I was a caroler, and then I had to go to take my kids, and then my kids went to take the younger great-grandkids. These were wonderful, wonderful traditions that the whole family enjoyed.

After we moved to Minnesota, we didn’t always see Grandpa and Grandma more than a few times a year. Christmas, of course, being one of them. I remember in the last few years noticing some changes that those living close weren’t really noticing. Families coming home for the holidays can raise or notice some concerns. How to deal with this, especially during the holidays, can be difficult to figure out.

Let’s look to the experts. Suzanne Mintz is the president and chief executive officer of the National Family Caregivers Association and Gail Hunt is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for the Caregiving. They have some great answers to questions we might all be faced with when going home for the holidays.

What makes the holidays such a good time for adult caregivers to assess what’s going on with their senior loved ones?

Hunt said: Everyone comes together. If you’re a long-distance caregiver, perhaps you haven’t seen your loved one in a while. You may notice some real differences since a few months ago. Recent research from the NAC reveals that long-distance family caregivers are often the first to recognize the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. They arrive home, and Mom doesn’t recognize something or Dad is forgetting a lot of things. The hometown caregivers might not see the signs because they’re so busy and the changes are so subtle. Or that family caregiver who is close by is just not recognizing the signs.

What should family caregivers look for in their parents’ homes and how should they encourage support?

Mintz said: Checking out the environment is easy enough. Get rid of throw rugs. Make sure safety bars are in the bathroom. Are stairs in good shape and is clutter a problem? Are bills going unpaid and is food spoiled in the refrigerator? It’s also important to identify an emergency safety net. Might Mom call neighbors or members of a church or synagogue if she needs a ride? If so, get their telephone numbers. Find out what services are available through the faith community. Ask someone in the congregation to be your eyes and ears. Does Dad have a cellphone, even just for emergencies, or an emergency response device? If you can’t reach him for hours, do you know who to call? Is Mom forgetting things on the stove? Why not call the pharmacy to find out if your senior loved ones are filling their prescriptions on time. If more help is needed, contact local nonprofit agencies or seek outside assistance from professional caregivers.

How should family caregivers go about “checking things out” at their loved one’s home without ruining the family holiday festivities?

Hunt said: Don’t get heavy-handed. Let’s say you notice a pile of unpaid bills. Make it a concern that you speak to your parent about privately. Perhaps you’re in the kitchen making pies. You could say, “Gee, Mom, I saw all those bills. Do you need some help with them?” If you need to talk with your siblings about sensitive subjects, go out for breakfast or lunch. Don’t bring up the topic at the holiday dinner table, where everyone may have had too much wine to drink. Look for unexpected and unusual changes in your senior. If Mom used to have her hair done every Saturday and doesn’t anymore, ask, “What’s up?” If she’s just sick of going to the hairdresser, that’s not alarming. If she says it’s a waste of time or she doesn’t feel like going, that may be a concern. If it’s freezing out and Dad insists on wearing a sleeveless shirt, that’s a sign all is not well.

What is the best way to approach a senior to offer assistance?

Mintz said: I remember a family caregiver who visited her folks and was convinced they needed help. She would set up home care and as soon as she left, her parents would fire the caregivers. You have to recognize that your parents are adults and unless there are cognitive or emotional problems they can make their own decisions. We do not and should not become our parents’ parents. That concept is derogatory. We must always be the children. The Home Instead Senior Care network’s 40-70 Rule program ( can provide ways to help family caregivers discuss sensitive subjects with an older loved one.

There’s a wonderful webinar being offered free that addresses some issues that may arise when going home for the holidays. Please check out the information in the sidebar to this article and let us know if we can help. Safe travels if you’re traveling. Happy times with your family. Enjoy seeing those family members you don’t often get a chance to see. Be thankful for those special moments.

DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd.