Tips for navigating holidays with aging parents

Each year as the holidays are approaching, the planning and coordinating of family gatherings becomes a priority. And, with the anticipation of these events, emotions undoubtedly tend to run high. There is a certain amount of stress that naturally arises when gift purchasing, meal prepping, travel planning and being in close quarters with extended family. One particularly stressful responsibility can arise when middle-aged adults are charged with planning for their own children while also considering the needs of their aging parents. Balancing family needs and expectations can prove to be a difficult task, especially with elderly parents who may be experiencing both cognitive and physical decline.

Shifting into the caregiver role: This is a natural phase of life where an adult begin to shift from being in the role of the adult child to being the caregiver of aging parents. With this new role comes a variety of physical and emotional challenges. The onus of practical holiday responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, planning, coordinating) can prove taxing. In addition, there is the added emotional pressure of continuing family traditions and making holidays memorable given that there may not be as many years left to celebrate them with those who are getting older. It is important to recognize that this added responsibility can trigger thoughts about mortality and may, at times, lead to feelings of sadness. Acknowledging these natural emotional responses while also being mindful of the enjoyable parts of the celebration will lead to a healthier, more balanced experience.

Talking Memories: Reminiscing about the past is a way of keeping aging parents connected to their legacy. Talking about traditions and reminding them of your appreciation for what they have done over the years is a special way of honoring their roles within the family. And, from a cognitive perspective, looking at old family photographs triggers long-term memories, which is an added benefit for helping with cognitive decline.

Safety and Planning: The holidays naturally provide more time together and, as a function of that, there are more opportunities for serious discussions. Although planning for the future may not always lead to the most pleasurable conversations, this is a necessary dialogue to have at some point. Practical home modifications may be needed in order to minimize the risk of injury. Life insurance policies and estate documents should be organized so that they can be accessed in the future. While these topics are often avoided because they are uncomfortable to address, when the time comes, the psychological benefit of being informed and organized greatly outweighs the cost of initiating these difficult conversations.

Self-care: With added responsibilities comes the increased need to pause and ensure that the pressure is not taking an emotional and/or physical toll. If feeling fragmented and unhealthy, we are unable to effectively care for those around us. Aging parents may have expectations about how the holidays will be celebrated, yet they may lack the ability to assist in carrying out the plans. It is important to honor those special traditions for aging parents while also keeping a sensible perspective and minimizing guilt if certain traditions fall by the wayside. Adequate sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are basic ways of fueling ourselves so that we may expend energy on others. In addition, having healthy boundaries, realistic expectations, and engaging in positive self-talk are other important methods of bolstering our psychological energy. Ultimately, while family traditions are most certainly fun and valuable, it is most important to relax, be present, and enjoy the opportunity to simply be still with those who mean the most to us.

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