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Survival Guide to Awkward Holiday Conversations

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Many people feel the holidays should be a time of great joy and celebration. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year’s might be the only times some family members gather together during the course of a year, and these holidays should be a time to renew acquaintances and re-cement the bonds of family.

Yet for many caregivers and their relatives, the holidays represent a time of dread. Oh, the awkward conversations that might ensue when you're forced to share space with a sibling you resent for not helping enough with Mom’s caregiving. Or when your young child comes to you in tears because Grandpa’s dementia has advanced to the point he no longer knows who she is. What can you say? How can you respond to these challenging situations?

Consider these strategies to help conquer four common scenarios caregivers or their relatives might face during the holiday season.

1.You want to tell your sister you need more help caring for Mom or Dad

It’s not uncommon for one sibling to provide much more caregiving to a parent than the other children. Still, this situation can cause resentment among brothers and sisters. And while speaking up to ask for help is a good strategy for eliciting help from others, it may not be as easy as it sounds. Maybe your sibling history has been rocky. Or maybe you’ve asked many times before to no avail but feel you need to bring the topic up again.

Before you choose a holiday gathering to broach such a conversation, however, ask yourself if this is really the right time and place. Holiday get-togethers often create stress for the participants simply due to the family dynamics involved. Is it wise to potentially add to that stress by approaching a sibling about your parents’ caregiving needs?

If you do decide the annual family holiday party is the best place for you to have the conversation, consider these tips:

  • Keep alcohol out of the mix. Sure, a glass or two of wine may loosen your inhibitions and give you the courage to approach your sister about providing more caregiving support, but alcohol rarely facilitates civil conversation. It may be best to have this talk while everyone is sober.
  • Don’t be confrontational. Instead of attacking your sister for not doing enough to help with Mom, try confiding your own struggles. Tell your sister how difficult and time-consuming it is for you to take care of Mom, and express how grateful you would be for even a small amount of help. Be specific in your request. It’s OK to say, “Would you be willing to have Mom stay over a weekend each month?”
  • Stay calm. If your sibling rebuffs your appeal, don’t get angry or emotional. Try to leave the door open to future communication by accepting your sister’s response and changing the subject. Then approach another time, maybe a few weeks down the road. You could use the technique of asking three times, in three different ways, to try to turn your sibling’s “no” into a “yes.”

2. You’re seeing a relative for the first time after they have received a serious medical diagnosis

Breast cancer affects about one in eight women in the U.S. and Canada. Every 34 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Because the risk of being diagnosed with a serious health condition like cancer or heart disease generally increases with age, your likelihood of encountering a recently diagnosed relative at a holiday party goes up each year.

What can you say to a family member if they’ve received a serious diagnosis? Consider these tips:

  • Open the door to talking about the diagnosis, but let the other person lead the conversation. If your relative doesn’t want to discuss the situation, then change the subject. Some people may want to keep their health struggles private, while others don’t want to bring up a sad topic during a happy holiday event. Let your relative know you’ll be available to listen whenever they feel like talking – now or in the future.
  • Be empathetic and sensitive. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how you would feel in their situation. If your uncle reveals he has just been diagnosed with dementia, express your love and support. It is best to not brush off the diagnosis and assure him he’ll “get better” nor to respond with despair or horror stories of others you’ve known whose personality or behaviors changed in some unfortunate way.
  • Offer as much support as you can give. You can make sure your relative knows the specific ways you can help. Offer to bring casseroles to the house when needed, to pick the children up from school activities or to clean the house. These gestures are some of the best gifts you can give a recently diagnosed loved one for the holidays.

3. You notice during your holiday visit that your aging parents need more help than they had let on

All year long, whenever you spoke with Mom or Dad by phone you asked if they were doing all right. And all year long, in each conversation, they replied, “Oh, yes. We’re doing fine.”

But then you arrive for the holiday dinner and discover the house is not just cluttered, but downright dirty. Maybe the yard is overgrown with weeds, or there’s only the narrowest walkway shoveled through the snow to the mailbox. It is clear to you that your parents aren’t able to keep up with chores and could use more help.

Here’s what you could do:

  • Ask yourself if this is the right moment to talk to Mom and Dad about the situation. Can it wait until after the holidays? If you decide to proceed, catch one parent or the other during a private moment. Don’t bring up the lack of housecleaning while everyone is gathered around the dinner table, as this may likely cause your parents embarrassment.
  • Communicate with empathy. Instead of telling your parents their house is filthy, speak about how difficult it must be to keep up with cleaning as you get older. Frame the conversation as one of caring, not of disparagement. Give them a sense of control by asking them to specify what types of help would make their lives easier.
  • Offer to help—or to get them help. If you can’t directly help because you live far away, offer to find someone who can provide assistance. A professional caregiver can perform light housekeeping duties and generally contribute to your parents’ safety and comfort in their own home.

4. You need to prepare your children for Grandma or Grandpa’s altered behavior due to Alzheimer’s disease

Children can be frightened by the symptoms of Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. It can be upsetting to a child when a cherished grandparent ceases to recognize who the child is, for example. And inappropriate dementia behaviors like trying to undress in public can be uncomfortable for children and adults alike.

You can help prepare your children to deal with a family member’s cognitive challenges by considering the following:

  • Keeping your conversation age-appropriate. Young children may only need to know that Grandpa sometimes acts differently because of his illness, while older children may welcome more detail regarding why dementia prompts these behavioral symptoms.
  • Advising them of specific behavioral symptoms they might encounter. It’s OK to say things like, “I want you to know that Grandpa sometimes gets agitated and starts shouting, but it’s not because he’s mad at you. It’s just because of how Alzheimer’s has affected his brain.”
  • Provide them with coping strategies. Let them know it’s all right to immediately leave the room quietly if a behavior is bothering them. Reassure them they can come to you to express their discomfort or other feelings.
  • Lead by example. Even if a relative’s dementia-related behavioral symptoms make you feel uncomfortable, try to stay calm, respond with empathy for the individual and his or her caregivers, and leave the room gracefully if necessary. Your children will take their cues from your behavior.

The family gatherings that dot the holiday season need not be minefields of awkward conversations. If you prepare yourself and your family in advance for these common scenarios, you can be better prepared to survive these get-togethers with your dignity and relationships intact.

Last revised: December 5, 2017

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