The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, with food being the centerpiece of the occasion. But when you're the caregiver for an elderly parent, the joy can be overshadowed by stress.
Whether you're celebrating winter holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or New Year's Eve, or holidays that fall at another time of year, take steps ahead of time to make sure you and your loved one can enjoy food together with as little stress as possible. These tips can help.
Take into account the meal times
Your mom or dad may normally eat at a different time than your planned holiday meal. If meal times don't coincide, give your parents a nutritious snack to stave off hunger, or find out if it's possible to serve the holiday meal at a time that's good for your parents. If there are other holidays on the calendar, consider that time as well. Your dad likely has a limited amount of energy to visit other people, so give yourself plenty of time to eat.
Serve your parent's easy-to-eat food
Holiday meals often include special occasion foods that may be too rich or difficult for your parents to cut, chew, swallow, or hold on to a fork or spoon. Talk about this beforehand, if that's possible. Learn what foods your parents should avoid, like nuts. Serve safer options in small amounts and help by cutting up hard-to-eat foods before they reach the table or plate.
Another option is to serve something simple for your parents to eat that doesn't need a lot of supervision and doesn't make a mess. Rice or fine pasta with vegetables, veal puree or fish stew (without bones!), or tuber and broad bean puree are some examples. If you're not hosting the holiday event, ask if it's okay to bring a meal that's suitable for your parents.
Remember the meds
If your dad normally takes prescription medications at meals, don't let this holiday be a time to go off schedule. Review the medication list ahead of time and set a timer on your phone to remind you of dosing times.
Work in shifts with other guests.
Have a conversation ahead of time with other guests who can help. When helping a parent through a meal, he may not have many opportunities to eat his own food or chat with people at the table. Incorporate a break by arranging for another guest (perhaps a sibling) to take turns helping.
Plan your bathroom break
When you have to go, you have to go. And aging parents, like young children, sometimes need to make half-hearted excuses. A trip to the bathroom before a meal might reduce that risk, but it's not a guarantee. Figure out in advance who will help your parents if the call of the wild comes at mealtime.
Have fluids on hand
Make sure your father stays hydrated and drinks plenty of fluids before, during, and after the meal. Also, keep an extra glass of water and a straw handy if needed, in case your dad has a hard time swallowing his food. Also keep in mind that wet food is easier to swallow, so consider adding a little extra sauce to the parent's food.
Monitor alcohol intake
While alcohol may be offered at the holiday meal, that doesn't mean it's safe for your parents. Alcohol use can cause falls in older adults and can interfere with medications. Ask your parent's doctor if a small libation is allowed. Like half a glass of wine. Otherwise, consider offering your parents non-alcoholic beer, wine, or champagne if they'd like. And be careful about your own alcohol consumption – while you're acting as a caregiver, you'll need to stay in control.
Arrange your parents' outing well in advance
Gatherings can be exhausting and stressful for older adults, and your parents may be ready to leave before the holiday meal is officially over, especially if guests are late. Decide on a realistic check-out time and let other guests know in advance, so everyone can plan accordingly.
If all goes well, you and your parents will enjoy the holiday meal and end up feeling the glow of meaningful family connection, sharing, and love, all of which are great for your health.