As the holidays approach, I want to share a story with you. It’s the story
of a friend of mine, Noreen*-a typical sandwich-generation mom and
daughter who had many people and priorities to juggle. But it was at
Thanksgiving last year when she realized something needed to change.
Noreen left home for college 30 years ago. After graduation, she got
married, had two sons, and settled into a life in a small town north of
Boston. But her roots, along with her aging parents, were still in
Western Massachusetts. Among her three siblings, Noreen lived the
closest to her folks and was the most worried. Her brother, Tom lived on
the west coast and typically chalked up Mom’s forgetfulness and Dad’s
driving mishaps as part of getting older. Pam, the youngest, had her
hands full with a rebellious teenager and a recent divorce. She had no
room on her plate to worry about Mom and Dad.
So, as Noreen drove – or crawled -- along the highway last Thanksgiving,
she wistfully remembered Thanksgivings past. Mom’s famous pecan
chocolate chip pie, Dad’s careful carving of the turkey and the
children’s delight at watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in
their pajamas seemed like scenes out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Noreen also recalled the fractious squabbles that sometimes erupted
amidst the merriment. Those tensions seemed far less weighty than the
anxiety she now felt about her parent’s safety and welfare, and her
siblings’ apparent dismissal of her fears.
Arriving at her parents’ home, Noreen couldn’t help but stare at the
peeling paint and the unkempt lawn. Years ago, she suggested her folks
sell the house and find a place to live that was more senior-friendly.
Dispelling her concerns, Noreen’s parents quickly dismissed the idea.
Noreen, unsupported by her siblings, let the issue drop. Now, she
regretted that decision. She opened the front door and got a whiff of
something burnt. Turns out it was the turkey. Noreen’s mother was
apologetic. She had gotten distracted by the excitement of the holiday.
Tom and Pam were busy ordering take out Chinese food and seemed
un-phased by the Thanksgiving turkey that had already been tossed. Mom
had always been a consummate cook. Now, no one seemed to care that she
ruined the holiday meal centerpiece. Noreen also worried about her Dad
who seemed unsteady and frail. She asked how he was feeling and he
replied “under the weather” but hadn’t seen the doctor in months. As the
day progressed, Noreen grew increasingly more concerned. She saw a stack
of bills on the kitchen counter, some of them dating back months. She
observed Mom forgetting simple things and got frazzled easily. While
Noreen did not want to worry excessively or make a scene, things seemed
out of sorts and she could no longer pretend otherwise.
Holidays are a time when emotions get stirred up. Like Thanksgiving
cranberry sauce and stuffing, our emotions are a mixture of ingredients:
Excitement, joy, sadness and stress can all be part of the family
recipe. Many adult children, like Noreen, must face a changing reality
and confront their own anxiety and grief as their parents lose their
strength and independence. These changes are often more prominent around
holiday time, particularly for adult children who live at a distance. It
is easy to overreact when we see, as Noreen did, bills piling up or a
home not properly cared for. At the same time, it is important to
differentiate changes in behavior. A newfound tendency to let the house
go a bit can be part of normal aging, or it can represent illness and
decline. When I later met Noreen for coffee, she told me she worried
that the burnt turkey was an ominous sign. I assured her that one burnt
turkey does not foreshadow disaster, but a pattern of uncharacteristic
behaviors, is more of a concern.
Holidays can be incredibly stressful. In the midst of all the activity
and eating, they can also provide an opportunity to observe our parents
as they age. So this season, here is what to look for to determine if
your worries are justified and whether there are real concerns about
your parent’s wellbeing and safety that need to be addressed.
• Change in eating habits/weight loss
• Forgetfulness-out of the ordinary
• Neglected personal hygiene and cleanliness
• Decrease in socialization and activity level
• Significant mood changes
• Unexplained dents in the car
• Misuse of prescribed medications
• Mishandling finances
Like Noreen, so many adult children feel they shoulder the burden of
worry on their own. Getting siblings on the same page, whenever possible
is a good place to start. Sharing perspectives on Mom’s increasing
forgetfulness or Dad’s unsteady gait can shed new light on your
understanding of the problem. Has it been an ongoing progressive decline
or an intermittent reaction to stress or illness? Gathering information,
as objectively as possible is the first step toward being an effective
caregiver. Unlike Noreen, you don’t have to go it alone. Getting the
support and information you need early on can help you navigate the
unexpected twists and turns along the caregiving journey.