12/13/2011 06:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Home for the Holidays

Families can use the holidays as a time to reconnect and make time to talk about how to handle circumstances for elderly or ailing loved ones they only see once a year.

"We see a huge spike in traffic to our site right after the holidays every year," said Andy Cohen, CEO of "People go home for the holidays and see how untenable the situation is and they are spurred to try and help."

Mr. Cohen said that talks with his sister were initiated at family gatherings and then continued over the phone when it came to sharing long-distance care for their mother. It was that experience that sparked the idea for, a site devoted to offering caregiver support nationwide.

"The key when initiating these discussions is to recognize that they are losing control of a lot of things in their life," he said of elderly parents. "Phrase it so that it's their choice and it's about maintaining their independence."

Homewatch CareGivers' "Let's Talk" guide can navigate difficult discussions about helping a loved one. also provides real-life scripts for "difficult conversations" such as talking with an elderly parent when you become concerned about their driving. "This is a lightning rod topic," said Mr. Cohen. He said that proper nutrition is also a common concern with the elderly population.

Whatever the topic, Mr. Cohen points out that no one should expect to resolve it in one meeting so it's best to start the discussion now. "You are starting a process," he said. "Adult children want to make the decision, but this is a multi-month process. Siblings should expect that this will take a long time."

Jacqueline Keller, a certified wellness coach and founder of, was a caregiver to her mother for four years until she passed away from Alzheimer's disease and now provides in home caregiving for her father-in-law. "Schedule it rather than bring it up casually," she said of taking about family caregiving:

While it may seem like an ideal time for you to simply introduce it into the conversation, it can be a very sensitive topic and people don't like to be surprised by it. Give your family a heads-up that you'd like to find a few minutes to discuss "Dad's situation", or whatever it is about the situation that you want to make sure you cover.

Ms. Keller said that she did not have success when trying to communicate with her sister about their mother, but that things have gone much more smoothly with her father-in-law. "The discussions on this topic at family gatherings are generally brief, " she said. "More often, we speak with siblings on the phone."

But it's not entirely up to the adult children: Elder law attorney Sara Polinsky advises her clients to plan a discussion with their kids when they visit for the holidays.

"I think it's a good time to have a discussion because it's not a time of crisis," she said. "Everyone is in a positive frame of mind, not dealing with an unplanned crisis."

And with a little planning, Ms. Polinsky said that it can be more than a discussion, but also a time for appointments at the bank or with an attorney. "A lot of my elderly clients say they want their kids to be a second pair of ears, to be involved," she said.

The advantage to this communication is to balance the future responsibilities. "The parents can share their wishes now," she said. "They make it clear it's not the kids who will be deciding."

Petra Maxwell, an attorney who founded The Mediation Online, agreed that the holidays are an ideal -- and all-too-rare -- opportunity for open communication about caregiving needs for families.

The holidays are an excellent time to gather everyone together to talk to loved ones about their plans for the future. While adult children may feel as though the holidays are a time for celebration and, therefore, the serious conversations should be avoided, children should recognize that these discussions are truly about family and how best to care for Mom and Dad... The most loving thing kids can do, is to come together and openly discuss their concern for their parents rather then to sweep things under the rug until its too late.

Ms. Maxwell said that it can be helpful for adult children to ask their parents, "What's important to you?" rather than begin a discussion with what they think is the priority. "Some children often like to focus on housekeeping matters like legal arrangements and financial issues," she said. "While Moms and Dads are often most concerned about whether they'll be placed in a nursing home or not, or what will happen to the family pet."

Go into the discussion with a goal, not just a list of grievances or worries, and there is a better chance of success. "Ultimately what you want from your family meeting is to find a way to make sure that mom's and dad's future needs are covered, that they feel safe and understood, and that the burden of caregiving doesn't fall disproportionately on any one sibling so that noone is resentful later on," Ms. Maxwell said. "That's a win-win."

For a list of signs to look for when traveling home for the holidays, visit the Family CareGiver blog.