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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published December 21 2008

Savor the joy, forget the guilt

Dear Readers: This is the time of year when many out-of-town adult children make the trek home to see their aging parents. Lately, after receiving several questions on this issue, I started thinking of my own experience with my folks.

As I watched my parents’ decline, I’d imagine the shock my brother David would feel when he saw them after a year had passed. So, I would do my best to prepare him for what he’d find. I would stress repeatedly that he had to be ready for some pretty extreme changes in how they looked and acted.

Meanwhile, I’d get our parents pumped up about his visit. Even with Dad’s injured brain, he knew his son was coming. Mom would ask me every day, “When is it that David’s coming?” I’d marked the date on her calendar, but I think she just liked to ask.

As their excitement grew, everything seemed brighter. By the time David walked in the door, Mom and Dad were so perky and bright that I hardly recognized them. I was also aware that my brother must have thought I’d recently developed a doomsday personality.

The visit flew quickly by, and soon David was heading back home, feeling fairly certain our parents were doing quite well.

Meanwhile, back at the nursing home, I was coping with two elders mired in depression. They’d been so wrapped up in the excitement of anticipation that they basically missed the event.

When Mom again said to me, “When is David coming?” I choked back tears as I told her he’d just been here. There was no way around the truth. And the truth that he’d come and gone, and she’d forgotten, was horribly painful for us both.

Dad seemed to vaguely remember the visit, but he sunk back into a quiet, depressed state. Both of them appeared more frail than ever.

This, of course, left me – the primary caregiver – wondering if I should e-mail my brother and tell him, once again, that our parents were failing and to be ready for bad news. How seriously would he take me this time?

My situation is not uncommon. The excitement and anticipation of an expected visit by an adult child or beloved grandchild can brighten ailing elders enough to rally them. But this rally can’t be sustained. The visit happens. It’s over. And the caregiver is left to cope with the aftermath.

If you face a similar situation during this holiday season, refrain from second-guessing yourself. Detach from any guilt you feel about how you handled everyone’s expectations because however you handle it, there will be pain. There’s no way around it.

Parents are always parents. They will put on their best face for a visitor, especially an adult child. And then they will, exhausted from the show, regress for awhile. It’s not your fault. Try to find joy in the planning. Try to find joy in the visit. And let yourself off the hook after it’s over.

Bursack is the author of “Minding Our Elders,” a support book on family elder care, and maintains a Web site at www.mindingourelders.com. To view past columns, go to www.inforum.com and click on columnists. Readers can reach Bursack at cbursack@forumcomm.com or write her at The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107