THE BLOG
12/10/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Seniors and the Holidays: 4 Ways to Develop a Plan of Care

Sometimes the signs are right there in front of you -- whether you can spot them immediately or not. For me, it was during the holidays, when my dad wandered away from a family gathering and emerged hours later, disheveled and upset.

"Where were you?" my mother asked, aghast at dad's unexplained disappearance.

"I went to pick up my dry cleaning," he said, empty-handed and on foot. It was then that my family put together a worrisome pattern of missed appointments, driving difficulties and memory lapses -- the early signs of dementia.

For my friend Maggie, there was no pattern of behaviors pointing in an ominous direction -- just a phone call.

"My husband and I were having a fight over something stupid," she explains. "I was so pissed off I almost didn't hear the phone ring. When Mom told me about her diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, I couldn't speak. All the problems that were swirling around in my head suddenly seemed inconsequential. My world caved in on me and I didn't know where to turn."

Though our circumstances differed, Maggie and I both found ourselves in a role we were not quite ready for -- how to develop a care plan that's best for our families' needs. As I talked about in my previous post on how to spot warning signs related to your parents' well-being, these challenges often spike around the holidays when adult children visit their aging parents and are confronted with a new normal.

Something has changed -- mom is more frail, dad more forgetful -- and the caregiver torch gets passed from one generation to the next. If you find yourself in this role, you don't have to go it alone. Consider the following pointers to plan ahead and ease the journey:

Do Your Research

If you're out of town, who might check in on Mom or Dad in a storm or after a treatment? Who might be able to bring a nice meal over from time to time? Think about building a network of neighborly resources. Not available? Learn about the local senior center and home care agencies where your parent might enjoy a class, access transportation or find companionship. And consider identifying these resources now before a care crisis erupts, just in case you need more support at a later time.

Form a Team

If you have siblings, air your concerns before discussing them with your parents. The annual holiday dinner, when everyone is gathered together, is not the best time to broach the topic. Instead, come up with a plan to hold a family meeting. Agree to communicate as a unified front and hear each other's perspectives with an open mind; letting conflicts simmer at the surface will only derail your efforts.

Seek Professional Guidance

Match your loved ones needs to the proper expert. If you fear your mother is showing signs of dementia, ensure that she has a thorough medical evaluation for dementia. If your parent just seems off, see if you can attend the next medical appointment with her, or perhaps make an earlier one together. If you are unsure of whether your father is eligible for Medicaid, consult with an elder law attorney. If you need help sorting out the options for care, seek the expertise of a social worker or geriatric care manager who can help guide you and your family through the caregiving process.

Find Comfort in Friends

Maybe start a book club and encourage reads which talk about aging parents. This will open doors to conversations about what people have been through and you can share your own fears and experiences. You aren't alone -- and you won't continue to be alone.

While the holiday season can be emotionally charged, it can also provide an opportunity to adjust our expectations and focus on what's most important. For those who find themselves in the role of caregiver, you don't have to give up the meaningful traditions that enhance your family's connection to one another. But you may have to modify them.

It's been five years now, but my family now has a plan of care in place that works well for both my dad and my mom. While there were many unforeseen twists and turns along the way, we have settled into our new normal and are grateful to have made this journey together. A couple of years ago, we moved dad to a nursing home for veterans. We knew that we would have to develop a partnership with the nursing home staff to insure dad received the best possible care. Now we feel confident that he is well cared for and my mom visits every day.

When we visited my dad in the nursing home this past Thanksgiving, we brought our instruments and sang his favorite tunes. My daughter danced with dad, who is confined to a wheelchair. But despite Dad's physical incapacity, he can still let his arms (and spirits) soar. Seeing my daughter dance with my father is a new memory that I cherish.