Seniors Digest
Seattle-King County Edition
  December 10, 2011 

The Family Caregiver: Family Holiday Hangover Syndrome

Every year, shortly after the holidays, care consultants nationwide receive a barrage of phone calls from people concerned about elders in their families. I've come to view this as the Caregiving Family Holiday Hangover Syndrome.

Oh, the holiday parties and family gatherings! We look forward to the joy of reuniting with loved ones. These occasions sometimes bring about traditional hangovers brought on by excessive consumption; however, some of us will also experience the feelings of a hangover without ever touching a drop.

You may wonder, "What's wrong with Mom? The house is a mess, she's wearing a dirty dress, and it looks like the mail hasn't been opened in months. And she keeps repeating the same questions..." You might feel overwhelmed, helpless and your head starts to ache.

Steve Emmer, MSW


Mom may not have mentioned her difficulties and you may wonder when a change occurred. Physical and mental decline can occur slowly, but not always. Throughout the year, changes in abilities may go unnoticed. Even when problems are suspected by a long-distance caregiver, they are hard to confirm without a face-to-face visit. Indeed, your loved one (and perhaps a partner or other family member) may deny, downplay, or intentionally cover up changes in capacity and ability. This tendency to hide difficulties is not uncommon. We tend to get embarrassed and ashamed when asking for help, in particular when it signifies losing some independence.

Holiday visits are an ideal opportunity to take note of significant changes at home. Is Mom's once pristine house cluttered and dirty? Do you see overflowing trash, odors, unopened bills, spoiled food? Do you witness evidence of falls or problems with balance? These are signals that more supports are in order.

It's true that our daily routines are disrupted by the demands of the holidays and our memories may be taxed when performing religious services or meeting extended family. But people with declining capacities depend heavily on routine and such disruptions may exaggerate displays of memory lapses, mistaken identity, confusion and indecision.

On the flip side, increased positive interactions during the holidays can ease isolation and depression. Someone who has been extremely withdrawn and neglecting self-care may summon the ability to appear alert and independent. To develop a more complete picture, complement your first-hand observations and phone conversations with reports by other members of your family, friends and neighbors. Attend your mother's house of worship for additional insights from its members and leaders.

You may discover conflicting information in your research; you may be worried about your mother but your siblings may think she is fine. It's not uncommon for family members to disagree about the significance of these warning signs. A trusted professional can shed light on the matter and avert a burgeoning crisis.

Geriatricians and geriatric care consultants can assess an elder's situation and make recommendations toward improving an elder's health, safety, and happiness in the New Year. They might just be a cure for that hangover.

Author Steve Emmer, MSW, directs care consultation at Full Life Care.


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The Family Caregiver: Family Holiday Hangover Syndrome
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