In all the tumult of the holidays, with candles and cooking and crowded kitchens, the last thing you might want to deal with is a frail and shaky parent.
“It’s so tempting to just say, ‘Mom, I’ll handle this; you go relax,’” Karen Frank said. “Especially around Hanukka, with the hot oil on the stove, and the candle lighting, you don’t want them hurting themselves.”
But there are ways, Frank said, to include elderly people in the celebrations, to help them partake of the pleasures of the season rather than feeling sidelined and irrelevant. “It might just take a little more effort, but it’s worth it,” she said.
She pointed out too that children pick up attitudes from their parents. If they are impatient or dismissive with elderly relatives, the young tend to be that way, too. “The holidays are an opportunity to role-model respectful, caring behavior,” she said.
Frank is a community nurse with Project SHIN (Spiritual Healing Integrating Nursing), serving with several local congregations — Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, and Congregation Beth El in South Orange. She spoke with NJJN at HomeWatch CareGivers in South Orange, which works with Jewish Family Service of MetroWest and other local Jewish organizations and where Frank serves as director of client care nursing.
Her own mother-in-law lived with her family for 10 years. “She was a tiny woman but a powerhouse,” Frank said. “And she was so determined not to be a burden as she got older. She would say, ‘I have to earn my keep.’” When she could no longer stand and cook, Frank said, she would put a chair for her mother in the kitchen and ask her to guide the cooking process.
Larry Aronson, the agency owner, listened intently as Frank described how painful it can be for people who just a few years before were at the center of everything, presiding over the food preparation and gift-giving, and then find themselves unneeded. “Perhaps,” he said, “if you think of it as a gift that you’re giving that person, it might be easier to deal with the stress of trying to include them.”
“Sometimes people from out of town see things that ring alarm bells,” said Susan Schechter, clinical coordinator of older adult services at JFS of MetroWest. She pointed out that the holidays, with various members of the family together, can be a great chance to make tough decisions about changes in parents’ living arrangements.
“Good communication in the family is very important,” she said. “It helps if you can decide who is able to do what. For example, those who live further away might be able to handle the bill paying.”
As for the celebration time itself, warning signs can be as subtle as someone not wanting to go to a family gathering. Schechter said, “They might say it’s too much effort, or they don’t want others to go to too much trouble for them. It’s helpful to plan ahead — perhaps to arrange a quieter place where they can sit, to make sure people take time to go talk with them, or to have someone available to drive them home earlier if they get tired.”
To help assess what has changed, Frank suggested family members ask themselves if older relatives:
• Are having trouble finding the right words or are repeating themselves, forgetting names, or speaking inappropriately?
• Are eating properly? Is there fresh food in the refrigerator or cupboards?
• Are maintaining good grooming?
• Are steady on their feet and able to sit and get up with ease?
In addition to being sensitive to older relatives’ feelings, caregivers themselves might need extra consideration around this time of the year, especially the “sandwich generation” — those looking after both their children and their elderly parents, said Carol Billet-Fessler, associate director of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ. (Both JFS agencies are beneficiaries of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.)
“Now is the time to ask for help from other family members and perhaps to line up assistance from a home care agency,” she said.
And she added: “Also, remember to plan something pleasurable for yourself.”