Home for the Holidays!

by Phyllis Larkin, Psy.D
Geriatric and Family Psychologist

Scenes from a Rockwell painting rush to mind when we think about the holiday season: the family tableau, cookies baking, ”I’ll Be Home for Christmas” playing in the background…These idealized images, sounds and smells all give us a romanticized version of holidays full of bliss, joy, and harmony. In reality, “Home Alone” is closer to the truth for most families, who struggle to cope with a time of year that creates emotional, financial and travel expectations that are difficult, if not impossible, to meet. Now let’s throw in a parent who is in failing health or experiencing cognitive decline. No wonder some of us are filled with dread instead of hope at this time of year. Is it any wonder this is also the time of year when binge drinking increases, stress takes its toll on our bodies, and family discord spikes?

How to cope:

Prioritize your spending on things that will really create a sense of peace.

  1. Give the gift of time. Offer to take care of your aging loved one and give their primary caregiver a break. Taking mom or dad shopping for new clothes is a great way to show appreciation. Offer to do laundry, fill prescriptions, buy medication boxes and fill them (one month of meds is ideal), drive your loved one on errands, do the grocery shopping, make meals to freeze, install grab bars, put anti-slip mats under throw rugs to deter falls, find a handyman to help as things need to be done, etc….
  2. Don’t spend money you don’t have. The finances of living abroad can be staggering and adding airfare, presents, expensive food, hotels, dining out, and incidentals may be more than you or your family can manage.
  3. If you can afford it, offer to cover the co-pays for your loved one if they are living on a fixed income. This is a gift that will be remembered all year.

Tough talks:

  1. DO NOT have discussions about your loved one’s financial, physical, or cognitive status at family functions! This includes the kitchen or sidebar discussions. Your loved one will feel betrayed and so will the hostess. Keep it light! Save these talks for a private, dedicated time in a safe place.
  2. DO talk about your loved one’s needs and wants (see last month’s blog) in a calm and loving manner. This should take place after a meal, preferably at a time of day when they aren’t tired, and in a place THEY feel comfortable. Plant seeds. Don’t push or insist. “Mom, I live so far away and I need to know what you want. I want to be able to advocate for you if there was ever a time when you couldn’t advocate for yourself.” Then listen. Don’t judge. Don’t cajole. Don’t have an agenda. Ask: “Does Dr. Blank know what you want if you can’t speak for yourself?” More listening…
  3. Be honest about how hard these discussions are to have. “It makes me so sad that mom is having trouble remembering things. I don’t want her to get infirm and dependent, but she is. I can’t imagine how hard it is for you to see this every day.” “Becky, this is so hard on you. You handle all mom’s medical issues! How can I help out while I’m here? Would it help if I handle the insurance paperwork? I can do that from Amsterdam.” “John, can I go to Home Depot and buy the grab bars you want to install?”
  4. If you have siblings, you will want to discuss everyone's strengths, and how these can be used to help your loved one and the primary caregiver. “I can’t be on the ground in an emergency, but I can email, call and pay bills.” “John, you have been so good about helping keep mom’s house functioning. Do you need us to set up an account for these expenses?” “Becky, you have really shouldered the medical appointments and doctors' visits. Do you need help with mom’s insurance co-pays and banking?” “Becky, can I arrange my next visit around your vacation so you and Bill can get away?”
  5. NEVER keep secrets! Don’t band together against one member. Discussions should be open and honest. “John, I know your construction company is doing really well. Do you have the time to do all this stuff? Can we hire one of your workers to help out?” Sally has two kids in college and it’s expensive to hire outside help. Instead of asking for money, say, “Can you ask the kids to spend time with mom so Becky can have an afternoon off?” “Can Billy (Sally’s son) mow mom’s grass this summer? It would really save on yard expenses and she would love to see him when he’s home from school.” “Can Susan (Sally’s daughter) help mom with her marketing? The bags are getting heavy and they both love to shop.”
  6. Engage the next generation in help. This models intergenerational commitments and strengthens family ties. We all share the memory of mom bringing Billy a Coke while he’s mowing her lawn or Susan putting the groceries away while chatting with grandma. These moments last long after the expensive gifts are gone. Gifts of love and time are what we all want. These are the Rockwell moments!


This is a term given to those of us who live far away — we swoop in and then we leave. Often we can see things that those on the ground can’t. We then voice our concerns, tell people what to do or criticize how things are being done. Then we get on a plane and leave a wake of resentment behind. “My sister, who lives in Europe (eye roll) came in and told me how to manage my mother's care! Who does she think she is?” Criticism is never helpful and is never acted upon. Instead, follow this strategy:

  1. Open with a compliment. A real compliment. No sarcasm, no judgment. “Becky, you are doing a wonderful job with all mom’s medical appointments and insurance. Thank you.”
  2. Follow with a compassionate question. “How are you taking care of your arthritis when you’re so busy with mom? I’m concerned about your health. Taking care of mom is exhausting. How are you?” Listen — for a long time. No suggestions, no judgment.
  3. Offer practical help. “Can I order mom’s meds and have them delivered?” “Would it help if I called mom every day so you can have a break from the constant calls?” “Can I transfer money to mom’s account for the grab bars?”
  4. Be open to alternatives. “I need to keep track of the insurance. Could you arrange for her rides to the senior center online?” “Could you send $100/month for her co-pays instead?” “Can you set up a Skype account and show her how to use it?” “Can you set up her online banking and help her pay her bills?”
  5. Execute your commitment. It’s not help if it doesn’t get done. Instead, it leads to resentments and conflict. If you don’t execute the request, you are swooping.

Go bake those cookies, play some Bing Crosby and have a cup of tea with your loved one. Happy Holidays!