Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A christmas wish for family caregivers

At my home town (Portland, Oregon) we’ve got more snow than ever recorded for this time of year. In fact, we’ve only had a white Christmas a few times in the last century. This year, we’ve got a foot of snow or more covering the ground.

But our family is among the lucky ones. We have no one ill or in the hospital; no one traveling from out of town that hasn’t already arrived and our aging parents are safely residing in communities that are devoted to their care and comfort.

This is the first Christmas that my in-laws (both in their 90s) are living in a retirement community after moving out of their home in the late summer. They’re happy, and they have no worries about frozen pipes, trees falling on the house, walking to the mailbox, or running out of groceries before they can safety travel to the store. They don’t need to worry about the roof or the gutters; the sidewalk or driveway.

My mother-in-law calls regularly to make sure we’re OK. In her voice, instead of the customary worries and concerns, I hear a lilt. She’s happy, warm and comfortable. She’s making new friends and enjoying the companionship. And she doesn’t even have to cook if she doesn’t want to.

I know that we’re lucky. Many families are just starting the process we began more than two years ago when we determined that the family home was no longer safe for the parents alone.

Some families are just now recognizing the problem. The solutions seem very far away. Christmas can heighten the anxiety about an aging loved one’s safety, as you see, maybe for the first time, how much the steady advancing of time has worn away at the person you love.

Holidays are a time that many families first notice their loved ones’ decline. That awareness can cast a pall over the entire holiday.

What should you say? What should you do?

Here may be a place to start: “Hey mom/dad. It looks like you could use a little help around here to make things a little easier for you. You certainly have worked hard all your life and deserve whatever help you can get now! Don’t worry; I’ll help you figure out what works for you, and you don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do. Let’s just give it a try together, OK?”

If you think it’s time for your loved one to move to a retirement or assisted living community, ask them to simply give it a try with a temporary stay. Take them to visit and have a meal there (or 4 or 5). With my in-laws, it took several months and several visits. The last visit included all of their children and spouses – a group of about 10 of us – touring and sharing lunch. Finally, we got them committed to making a deposit and going back to prepare their home for sale.

We wondered if it would ever happen, but, at the same time, we were determined to let them take it at their own pace, as long as the pace kept moving forward.

Today, we’re convinced that it was the right move for them. It has given them a new sense of community; new friends; security and comfort. It has given us a tremendous gift of peace of mind, especially during the holidays and this cold, snowy winter.

My Christmas wish for you is that, no matter your situation, you find a way to peace of mind about your loved one. And patience, and persistence, and joy.

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