Aging Parents: Dilemma– Including Frail Elders for Holiday-Family Dinners

If we are fortunate enough to have aging parents and old family members, at some point we’ll probably face this dilemma: Can/should frail elders be included in family celebrations like Thanksgiving/Christmas/ Chanukah?  Our guidelines over the years have been:

1. Do they want to come?
2. Are they at physical risk if they come?
3. Is our home elderly-user-friendly?
4. Is it better for them or better for us?

This is how it has worked and still works for us:

1.  They want to come: Until they were in their 80s, my parents and Sr. Advisor R (my mil) wanted to come for Thanksgiving. They made the trip East from Oregon, California and Arizona. They stayed with us. Those were special times.

When travel became more difficult for them, we moved Thanksgiving dinner to Arizona. My parents could come over. Our tradition continued.

For many years, back east and out west, the night before Thanksgiving, found Mother, R and me, in our bathrobes in the kitchen, doing all preliminary preparations and enjoying the special togetherness that comes from working together. I smile as I think back. R phoned Wednesday night while I was doing the preparations by myself, recalling her happy memories of that night-before routine. Although Mother died in 2000, R and I continued the tradition until R broke her hip 4 years ago.

2.  Physical risk was a problem, first when Dad was undergoing daily cyclotron treatments for prostate cancer and later because R had broken her hip.

Dad’s treatment schedule was interrupted a bit (it wouldn’t have taken place on Thanksgiving day in any event); and doctors said “no problem” taking a  few extra days off to drive over to Arizona for Thanksgiving. He and Mother spent a happy and uneventful (health-wise) Thanksgiving weekend in Arizona.

Four Thanksgivings ago R, at 97, was a patient in a rehab center, receiving therapy after broken hip surgery the end of September. She wanted to come for Thanksgiving dinner, but was unsure whether that was doable. Making her wishes known to the rehab staff and discussion with her doctor, generated lessons on how to get in and out of our car without putting any weight on her left leg.

She learned how to do what she needed to do, worked hard in rehab to be able to do it, and practiced transferring from our car to her wheelchair and back with the physical therapist when we came to visit.  We too learned: how to help her transfer from wheelchair to car and back and that the wheelchair could possibly be moved to the dining room table so she wouldn’t need to transfer from it to a dining room chair. The wheelchair, however, was bulky and a straight back chair with wooden arms was her seating arrangement of choice.

Admittedly, my husband and I felt some stress. Transporting a fragile elder with issues, is a responsibility. We were very cautious. We repeated our instructions to each other as we made each move–from car to wheelchair, from wheelchair to arm chair and finally back again to wheelchair to car. We could have paid for an aide from the facility to come with us. But that would have been an indulgence and R valued independence–however slight.

3. Is the home elderly-user-friendly? A comfort-height toilet (or grab bars in the correct bathroom location) and a solid straight back armchair with a firm seat provide needed support for older people with weak muscles and elders who are heavy. (I’ve seen elders stuck in a soft-cushion chair at family gatherings, far from the “action” and unable to move.)

4.  Is it better for them or better for us? Although we knew we were capable, we were fearful (unjustified as it turned out), about transporting R from the rehab center to our home for that Thanksgiving dinner. We truly didn’t consider it better for us.

All the “what if’s” came to mind as we were making that decision. And we had a Plan B, just in case. But we knew R wanted to come. What we didn’t realize was the psychological jumpstart getting out and being with family would give her. And the change of environment added to the pluses. She could see her goal. It motivated her–especially at those times when the rehab was very difficult.

Conclusion: My husband and I lost our previous hesitancy to take R out for a brief ride, when it first was allowed. I realized I could help her transfer from car to wheelchair etc. by myself. The week after Thanksgiving  I asked if she would like to go out for lunch at a quiet place not far from the rehab facility. She was so appreciative. And that made me feel good…So it was better her–and for me too!

Related: Encouraging elders’ help in Thanksgiving day preparations

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.

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