The holidays and the elderly visitor

The holidays are once again barreling toward us and with them come many joys, responsibilities and obligations. The much-anticipated parties, celebrations, gift-giving, decorating and reunions with friends and family are coupled with anxiety, financial stress, weird work hours for retailers and long-distance travel in bad weather. Getting everyone together for family celebrations is no small feat in the best of times and the desire to include grandparents, elderly parents, aunts, uncles and family friends can complicate holiday plans even further.

The thought of having a loved one who is housebound or in a nursing home while everyone else is celebrating is a sad one. Bringing them on board with the rest of the family for a few days has a lot of appeal but can come with major complications. Wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, medications and the disruption of important routines are all part of the eldercare experience and can be intimidating for those without specific training.

Of course, the first approach to take is to ask the older person directly about their specific wants and needs, but this can be tricky. A mature adult who has lost mobility and independence may not want to “be a bother” and might be inclined to downplay his or her own needs. A nurse or other caregiver will be able to provide more detailed information if the elderly person is less than forthcoming. Also, to check a person out of a nursing home for a period of time requires a doctor’s order and should be obtained in advance.

Shopping trips and meals out can be welcome activities, but the list of THINGS TO DO needs to be pared down considerably and routines such as an afternoon nap, must be given a lot of priority. It can be a real surprise as to how tired an older person can get and how quickly. Even long drives can be difficult and carsickness a real issue. If the person has been isolated, even in a nursing home, too much stimulation can be upsetting, especially for dementia patients. This situation may include those much-loved, chaotic family gatherings with everyone talking at once as they get re-acquainted with each other over events of the past year. The older person may not hear very well or remember who everyone is even from one moment to the next. For large family gatherings, it might be well to provide a retreat, preferably with similar company, where the older person can quietly watch the game and receive the occasional visit from one or two relatives or friends at a time.

Food and drink issues should be discussed ahead of time. Many medications are incompatible with alcohol, so sparkling cider or non-alcoholic wine or beer should be made available. Often, the older person has little appetite. Portions should be small and if all grandma wants for dinner is a slice of pumpkin pie, then that’s what she should have.

Though a teenager may be perfectly capable of watching small children, it is best they not be entrusted with the care of an older person except for very short periods, although the young folks should certainly be encouraged to spend time with their elderly relative. Great grandpa may be able to provide a lesson on playing a mean game of poker and Grandma might have foolproof advice on making the perfect pie crust. But trusting a young person with tasks such as administering medications, even with the most specific instructions, could be risky for both the teen and the elder. Leave that kind of thing to the adults.

Daniela DiSalvo, the Resource Development Director at the Good Samaritan Society Nursing Home, makes an important point. The family should not be driven by guilt. Guilt is a powerful emotion that can distort perceptions and the elderly family member may not benefit from being removed from familiar surroundings. No one should feel that they have to do this and the older person may feel safer right where they are.

But this is not to discourage the inclusion of elderly loved ones from holiday family gatherings. Everyone is different, some are more social than others and levels of competence vary considerably. Any family who is willing to bring the elderly relative on board, sharing the caregiving and aware of the perils and pitfalls can bring a little extra joy into the person’s life as well as everyone else’s.

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