|Cathy Sears, Law Clerk
Growing up, my entire family went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas each year. A big Irish-Italian family, all nineteen of my aunts, uncles, and cousins would pack into Nana’s family homestead – a modest ranch-style house. Our Italian side reigned supreme, as we would forego the traditional turkey or ham that other families eat on Christmas Day and feast upon Nana’s famous lasagna instead. (Her secret? Spend an entire afternoon hand-rolling mini-meatballs for the dish.)
As the rest of us swapped stories and scooped up the last bits of homemade sauce with savory garlic bread, Nana would quietly retreat to the sink to begin hand-washing the mountain of dishes that accumulated. The dishwasher had broken decades earlier and, per Nana’s Great Depression-era mindset, was deemed not worth the cost of replacing. Occasionally, one of the grown-ups would offer assistance, while us kids scampered toward the dessert table, trying to sneak as many pieces of sugary fudge into our mouths before our parents noticed. Being fiercely stubborn and independent, however, Nana always refused the help, and told the prospective helper to go socialize with their adult siblings instead.
Fast-forward to Christmas 2014. Nana was 81 years old by this time and had begun talking about downsizing to a nearby condo complex. Meanwhile, half of the grandchildren were in college or grad school with our own apartments and our own dishes to clean. A few of us – who inherited our stubbornness from our grandmother – decided to beat Nana to the sink and wash the dishes ourselves. Though she protested, she secretly looked relieved when we insisted that we had the situation under control.
As silly as it sounds, washing that mountain of dishes was my favorite part of Christmas that year. Though certainly not as traditional as the tree, lights, or presents, it reminded me of the true spirit of the holiday season: a loving and giving spirit to those we encounter.
Now, I don’t share this story just to pat myself on the back. Instead, I want to raise awareness at this time of year when those of us who live far away from our aging relatives may have visited family for the first time in a while.
Think back on your recent holiday visit with family. Did your relative look as put-together as she usually does, or were her clothes uncharacteristically dirty or askew? Was his home as tidy as it has been in the past, or were there piles of clutter? Did she have difficulty hearing or understanding you when you talked? Were there signs that he is having trouble managing his various medications?
If you’ve noticed changes in a loved one’s capabilities, consider talking to them now while they can still be part of the decision-making process and before they become a danger to themselves. Making even a minor change that acknowledges the senior’s limitations – like hiring housekeeping services or making an appointment with an audiologist – may help your loved one maintain his or her quality of life for as long as possible. It may be time to roll up your sleeves and get to work on those metaphorical dishes.