Isidore Elias, a playwright and songwriter from New York, was looking forward to seeing his 96-year-old mother, Sally, a Holocaust survivor living in Florida, for the first time in over year. They had both weathered the pandemic safely, but without his periodic visits, Elias knew he’d have to dive into medical, financial and household issues that had been put on hold during quarantine.
So before his recent visit, Elias did his homework. He scoped out the rules he’d have to follow to accompany his mother on doctors’ appointments and found a reliable car mechanic. He planned to take care of some delayed maintenance on her apartment. “Cosmetic improvements like fresh paint can make her feel better,” he said.
He arrived ready to be both caring and productive.
Even more important, planning ahead let him enjoy the real heart of his visit: cooking his favorite childhood recipes with his mother and watching dance videos from the 1940s together.
Post-vaccination reunions with aging parents come with hugs, kisses and sometimes a long-overdue list of to-do’s. Whether it’s making small fixes around the house or scheduling big ones, straightening out bills, moving heavy furniture or resetting computer passwords, adult children are often faced with chores that went undone while everyone was in lockdown. Letting the problem-solving part of the trip overwhelm the joy can be a real danger, though, and being overenthusiastic about getting things done can end up creating tension if parents are reluctant or don’t see the problem the same way. Here are some tips on finding the right balance.
Ask before you arrive
A few weeks before your visit, encourage your parents to start making a list of anything that needs attention and to add things to it as they occur to them. Have them share the list with you ahead of time, so that you can bring any necessary tools or supplies. If the list includes anything that requires a professional, whether for home maintenance, legal work or doctor’s appointments, schedule those before you arrive to coincide with your visit. The advance preparation will let you spend your time and attention on-site with your parent rather than chasing down details.
Once you’re there, assess
Parents may have deteriorated mentally or physically over the last year and family members “may not be able to detect these health changes over the phone or on Zoom,” said Marlyce Hill Ali, the medical director at CenterWell Senior Primary Care in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali said adult children should observe their parents’ balance, hearing and sight. Are they eating properly, cleaning their home as well as they had before the pandemic and following doctors’ orders?
“Look in their refrigerator and in their pill bottles,” she advised. One trick for medications, Ali said, is to look at the date the prescription was filled, and then count the number of pills in the bottle to calculate whether the correct number has been taken.
Watch your parents as they go about their day to see where they are struggling, advised Anita Darden Gardyne, the chief executive of Oneva, a technology platform that helps families in California find caregivers. Darden Gardyne also cares for her mother, who is legally blind. Aging parents might not be able to reach as high or stoop as low as before, so closets and pantries may need to be reconfigured, she said. Furniture or appliance layouts that worked well for years may need adjusting. Watch out for electrical cords running across the floor or other tripping hazards. If any new services such as lawn care or pharmacy delivery are needed, set them up and make sure they happen.
Plan your days
Schedule your activities around your parents’ routines, said Eric Troy, director of the Holocaust Survivors Assistance Program at Goodman Jewish Family Services in Davie, Florida. If your parents have more energy in the mornings, use that time to accomplish tasks they should participate in. If they nap in the afternoon, use that time to review bills, shop, coordinate caregivers or make repairs.
Navigate tough topics
When change is needed, it’s important to keep your parent at the center of the conversation as much as possible, said Darden Gardyne, by listening to them and getting their input on finding solutions. “If you start dictating, it’s not going to go well,” she said. “It’s better to ask, ‘Who do you think can help us with this?’ ”
Turning to logic rather than emotion can also help address difficult topics, Ali said. If your parents are watching TV with the volume turned all the way up, for example, she said, you might ask them if they are having trouble hearing the doorbell, kitchen timer or telephone, as a way to start talking about the need for a hearing test or hearing aids.
Communicate with caregivers
Elias’ mother lives on her own with the help of aides, but the agency that employs them has been hard-pressed to send the same helpers consistently, a situation made worse by the pandemic, when people became afraid to care for others in their homes. To make things easier for all involved, Elias created “a manual” for aides that provides information about her medication and health issues, but also includes his mother’s favorite meals, her daily routines and the phone numbers of local relatives she can speak with if she is agitated. “She can panic if she sees a strange person in her home,” so these touchstones can help reduce her anxiety and make the caregivers’ job easier, Elias said.
Troy, of the Holocaust survivors program, advises adult children to befriend the people in their parents’ lives, including home health aides, neighbors, local repair people or friends. “Not only are they able to observe your loved one when you are away, they also can report any changes that your loved one may not share,” he said, or help them with small matters on your behalf.
Without events to attend and friends to visit, parents may have gotten into the habit of taking more naps or watching more TV, said Leslie Forde, founder of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, a business that researches self-care for mothers and consults with companies on family-friendly policies. It may not be on their to-do list, but helping parents get active again can improve their physical and mental health. When Forde reconnected with her parents recently, she suggested they take walks around the playground where they enjoyed watching the children, do small errands on foot and use the stationary bike at home.
Remember, everyone can use help
Even older parents who thrived during the pandemic can use some help. Richard and Roseanne Packard of Berkeley, California, both in their late 70s, took on tasks like resurfacing their deck themselves during the pandemic and had an N95 mask for each day of the week stored in labeled baskets so they could be used the following week.
Still, when their daughter and college-age grandson visited from Wisconsin for five days in mid-May, they had work for them to do rearranging furniture, boxing up giveaways and dropping them at Goodwill, and moving heavy garden rocks. “We were helping them optimize,” said their daughter, Suzanne Swift. After being mainly housebound they were ready to make some changes, “but needed some tech-assistance and muscle to make it happen,” she said.
Talk about the future
Creating medical and legal directives, wills and other late-life instructions is a daunting task for anyone. Without these documents though, older people’s wishes around medical treatment or their estate may go overlooked. It’s best to ask them “what do you want to have happen?” and let others take it from there, said Ivan Watanabe, a managing partner at Guardian Life Insurance. That will usually mean getting a lawyer or estate planner involved. Clarity around these discussions can reduce anxiety, improve the quality of health care and put in place a plan that deals with any inheritance tax implications.
Savor the time together
It may be more than a year since you have hugged your parents! “Have all the fun you can,” said Darden Gardyne. “Put on the music you grew up with and enjoy the time you have together.”