Commentary: The holiday surprise nobody wants

Commentary: The holiday surprise nobody wants
December 17
00:00 2015

Allison Brown

Guest  Columnist

Julia Garrett had not visited her parents in eight months. The 13-hour drive from Boston to Kernersville passed quickly because she was so happy to be going “home” for the holidays. As she pulled into the driveway, she scanned the well-lit front porch where her mother usually would be waiting, but the porch was empty. When Julia stepped in the front door, she was surprised by the unusual smell lingering in the air. She expected the usual scents of mulled cider and pumpkin pies. It took a few minutes to identify, but the odor of dirty diapers was unmistakable. That was odd; she could not think of anyone in the family who had a new baby. Her mother swooped into the room and wrapped her in hugs. As they separated and Julia got a clear view of her mother’s face, she was startled by how tired her mother looked and by how much she had aged.

Looking into the den, she could see that her dad was in his recliner watching TV, his back to the doorway. She stepped over quickly to face him and received another jolt: he looked terrible. He had lost a lot of weight, there were dark circles under his eyes, his shirt was spotted with food stains, and he seemed to be looking through her rather than at her. Her close proximity informed her that he was the source of the dirty diaper odor. Coming to her side, her mother immediately noticed the smell and walked her dad down the hall to the bedroom, speaking to him as she would one of the grandchildren. Julia stood in shock at the realization that her father was not only incontinent but was losing his awareness and adult capabilities.

In the days that followed, Julia’s mother described the drastic decline in her dad’s mental health after he fell off a ladder and injured his head in the spring. The incontinence issues were only the tip of the iceberg, as her father’s sharp mind entered the foggy confusion of dementia and his caregiving spouse began to reach the end of her rope physically, mentally, and emotionally. Julia realized the situation had reached critical mass in a very short time and if she did not act quickly, her mother’s health could be at risk. This was one surprise Julia wished she could have avoided!

This month, many people will travel to visit older family members for the holidays and have a surprising experience similar to Julia’s. They will observe drastic changes in abilities, attitudes, and behaviors in the person whose health has declined and in the person who is providing care. Without a reliable point of reference, they may make incorrect conclusions about the situation and about the alternatives for solutions.

Navigating the options for care and support of aging adults is like entering a maze, where false turns mean lost time and setbacks in opportunities for improvements in health and wellbeing.

Fortunately for Julia Garrett and her parents, a quick Google search led them to local resources for information about dementia, in-home care, family caregiver support programs, home-delivered meals, Medicare and Medicaid, adult day care, Veterans services, and many other long-term support services, many of which they did not know existed.

For most people, this kind of holiday “surprise” is inevitable. The experts know that you will need many services to support both caregivers and care recipients so they can age in place with dignity and independence. In the 12-county Piedmont Triad region, the Area Agency on Aging partners with more than 60 agencies that provide an array of services authorized by the Older Americans Act to assist older adults, persons with disabilities, and their caregivers.

To learn more about supports for maintaining independence and aging at home, contact these “lead agencies” in each county:

Davidson: Davidson County Department of Senior Services, (336) 242-2290

Forsyth: Senior Services, Inc. (Winston-Salem), (336) 725-0907

Guilford:  Senior Resources of Guilford, (336) 373-4816

Randolph: Randolph County Senior Adults Association, (336) 625-3389; 1 (800) 252-2899

To learn more about long-term care opportunities, such as assisted living or skilled nursing care, call the Area Agency on Aging at 336-904-0300 and ask for the “Ombudsman” assigned to the county in which your loved one resides. Visit and select “Area Agency on Aging,” then scroll down to the “Funded Partners” link for a comprehensive list of resources in each county.

Allison Brown, program planner for aging for the Piedmont Triad Regional Council Area Agency on Aging, joined the agency in 2012. She works with the nonprofit and local government sectors. 

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