Leading online destination for family caregivers provides valuable tips for better communication and decision making in the holiday season.

San Mateo, CA, November 16, 2010 — As families across America get together for the holidays, many will be presented with difficult decisions regarding the care of an aging parent or other relative. To help caregivers more effectively identify issues and communicate with their loved ones who might be in need of additional support and services, Caring.com, the leading online destination for caregivers, has developed a list of tips to help lead productive discussions about critical caregiving issues.

Every year, nursing home and assisted-living administrators share the same story: Around the holidays, admissions spike. The reason? Adult children who haven’t recently visited their aging relatives come home and are shocked by what they see: a once well-kept house now in disarray, or a formerly robust relative looking startlingly frail.

“The holidays present a great time for families to productively discuss critical caregiving issues, because everyone’s together,” says Paula Spencer, author, family life specialist, and senior editor for Caring.com. “If you’re the caregiver, it’s a good time to reevaluate your parent’s or loved one’s needs. If you feel you’re carrying too much of the burden, it’s an opportunity to express concerns with family members and present alternatives for getting help.”

Before an adult child can help, he or she needs to get a realistic picture of what’s needed. Asking direct questions right off the bat may put relatives on the defensive. A lot can be learned, however, simply by looking around. Some tips from Caring.com include:

  • Look in the fridge. Is the freezer full of TV dinners and the vegetable drawer empty? Has the milk gone sour? Are there multiples of a single odd item (a sign it may be repeatedly bought and forgotten)? A quick scan can tell you whether your parents are still able to shop for and prepare healthy meals.
  • Take a peek at the mail. Unopened junk mail is nothing to worry about, but personal correspondence that piles up unread may be cause for concern. Unpaid bills are a real red flag of trouble managing finances.
  • Note the pets and plants. Your parents’ ability to take care of other living things may offer clues to their ability to manage their own care.
  • Identify some benchmarks. How are your parents doing compared with this time last year? How have their lives, interests, and activities changed? A marked decline from one year to the next may mean it’s time to start looking into additional supports.

Bringing up concerns about how well your loved ones are coping independently risks triggering a holiday-wrecking blowup. Rather than launching into your concerns, or announcing what you think they ought to do, take time to express what you see thoughtfully. Ask what worries them or what they’d like help with, and offer to brainstorm solutions together.

Spencer, who served as a caregiver herself, offers these tips to help families have meaningful conversations that result in healthy support and positive actions (and more peaceful holiday meals together!):

  • Use “I” statements. Avoid “you” statements that put others on the defensive, making them less likely to listen and more likely to attack. Shift the focus and put the emphasis on you: “I’m not sure I’m being understood,” or “When this happens, I feel like . . . “
  • Be specific. If you’re the stressed caregiver, think about specifics that make things easier on you rather than just telling your sister that you need help caring for Mom. Ask for help with shopping, or have a cousin take Mom to doctor’s appointments. You might discover that family members are relieved to learn about specific ways to participate in caregiving.
  • Focus on loved ones. Remember this is about providing the best support you can for your parent or relative. It’s not about personal preferences or old family habits. If things get off track, ask, “How is this helping Dad?”
  • Ask questions to gain understanding. Don’t assume you know what your brother’s comment meant. Ask questions, and you might learn something surprising that sheds a new light on the situation.

Taking the time to follow these communication ground rules will help caregivers navigate this stressful time with less tension and more positive “and productive” interactions.