Do’s and Don’ts for Caregivers at the Holiday Dinner Table

by Barry J. Jacobs, AARP –

Avoiding stressful confrontations with family members

Imagine a family caregiver serving Christmas dinner to her aging mother who lives with her, as well as to her two older brothers and their families who arrived from out of town. The table settings look attractive, and the food is yummy — but the caregiver is feeling grumpy. “I’m doing all the work again,” she thinks to herself. “Just like I do for Mom all of the time.”

What should family caregivers say at the holiday dinner table to keep the peace and make a plea for more help? Here are some ideas:

Don’t say: “Why aren’t you helping out with Mom more?”

An axiom of family therapy is that “you” statements (“You don’t treat me well,” for example) have an inherently accusatory tone and are almost always guaranteed to provoke a defensive reaction or host of excuses. Few stubborn brothers will respond positively and step up. At the same time, this question is too broad. Requests should be more specific and tailored to the sibling’s availability and capabilities.

Do say: “I would really appreciate it if you could help take care of Mom during dinner.”

Such “I” statements tend to be heard by others more neutrally. A more defined and limited request is more likely to be met with cooperation. Who would dare say no when they see the caregiver slaving away in the kitchen?

Don’t say: “Mom’s constant needs are wearing me down.”

Many unsupportive family members justify their lack of caregiving involvement by denying a parent’s deficits. Rather than believe what you are saying and accepting that Mom needs care, they are likely to criticize you for being an exaggerator and complainer.

Do say: “What changes have you noticed with Mom’s walking, speaking and thinking since you were last here?”

It is better to appeal to the sibling’s own senses to help him grasp a parent’s decline. Even if that sibling persists in denying that there are any changes, he is likely to pay more attention to the parent’s functioning and eventually get a clue.

Don’t say: “You should visit more often.”

As many of us can attest, guilt is a powerful motivator. But it also creates unpleasant feelings. Even if the brothers do come back before the next holiday, they will do so reluctantly — fearful that they’ll get another guilt-inducing lecture. In the end, they will find reasons to stay away.

Do say: “It was great to see you.”

To engage unsupportive siblings in the caregiving effort, it is necessary to make it a gratifying experience for them. Having a harmonious holiday dinner, full of laughs and free of acrimony, is an important step in that direction. As the table is being cleared and coats are being retrieved, let them know that you and Mom genuinely enjoyed seeing them and would love for them to be a more integral part of your lives.

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