Planning for the Future: How to Have Difficult Conversations with Aging Parents
There are many conversations that we enjoy having with our parents— discussing the forthcoming birth of a grandchild, sharing news about a new job or promotion, asking their advice about buying a new house— these conversations and others are harbingers of more happy news and good times.
However, as time goes on and we all age, it becomes necessary to have conversations about less-than-joyous subject matters, particularly end-of-life care. It’s not easy to discuss the end of our lives. In fact, according to The Conversation Project, only 27% of us have had that talk, despite the fact that 90% of people think an end-of-life care conversation is important.
These conversations are difficult, but they are necessary, and these tips can help you get started.
Tips for Speaking With Your Aging Parents
Our parents created us and raised us. Even as adults, we are still our parents’ children. So it is oftentimes awkward to speak to your parents about what you think they should do in their twilight years.
When the time comes for the child to assume a more parental role with regard to caring for parents, there needs to be a consensus between all involved with how the communication will start and how it will flow. Remember: These are your parents, and they have cared for YOU as long as you have been alive; put yourself in their shoes, suddenly being thrust into the position of having to be cared for instead of providing the care. It’s not easy.
Always approach this situation with respect and plenty of opportunities for your loved ones to express their opinions and concerns. Never dismiss their feelings, and give them ownership of the situation, as much as is possible. Keep in mind that your parents may be looking for an opportunity to discuss end-of-life issues with you. According to CDC.gov, 60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is very important, but 56% have not communicated their wishes to family members and loved ones.
The Time is Now
The best time to start the dialogue is after the first signs of a problem arise. Whether the problem is poor eyesight or trouble driving in low light situations, start talking right away.
When health issues necessitate a change in their lifestyle, many seniors in this situation may initiate the conversation with their families themselves. If your aging parent does not raise the issue, bring it up yourself, being sure to focus on a single issue at once, rather than multiple issues at the same time.
Preparing for the Conversation
Do your homework prior to “the talk.” Know the information you will be presenting, and know how different people have handled it. Presenting multiple sides gives your loved one a chance to not only feel they can choose what’s best for them, but it also gives them peace of mind to know that you are trying to find the best solution. Also, gathering as much information from your parents as possible goes a long way toward allowing for a smooth conversation. Multiple observations and multiple inquiries are also recommended.
The best approach to speaking with your parents about this issue is to go to them with a friendly and conversational tone. (Remember how much you dislike people approaching you with a concern using a hostile and angry tone?) Once your parents acknowledge the situation, ask for their opinions on how best to solve any concerns or problems. If your parents fail to recognize a problem, present your observations.
Try to limit the conversation to only immediate family members, and keep the group small; your parent will likely be delighted to spend time with just his or her children and be more open to the discussion. Avoid an intervention-style meeting. Keep it lighthearted and keep your loved one in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Think about how you would like to be approached, and maybe start by sharing a story of another family in a similar situation or produce your own end-of-life planning checklist and talk about how you are getting your affairs in order.
The Conversation Should Be Adult-to-Adult
Your parents are mature adults, not children. Speak to them with respect and dignity, not in a patronizing or immature way. Failure to treat them as the adults they are can cause defensiveness and resistance to your suggestions. Picture yourself in their proverbial shoes and go from there.
Try to keep the conversation balanced – your goal should be for your loved one to speak just as much as you do during your discussion. Half the time should be spent with you expressing your concerns and half the time should be allotted for them to express theirs.
Focus on Solutions that Allow Independence
Assure your loved one that, no matter what, any care options chosen will be made with the highest level of independence for them. For example, if your loved one only needs help with keeping their house clean, a house cleaner will be made available— no need for round the clock care!
Look for care options that allow them to continue to use their strengths, such as cooking or personal grooming. If they are still able to shop for groceries but only need transportation to and from a grocery store, address transportation issues. Remember, there are always people willing to help, whether they be from a professional service, a friend, or another family member.
Make Sure You See the Big Picture
We all need support, especially after a life-altering event, such as the death of a spouse. If one of your parents dies and the one left behind fails to keep up with the cleanliness of their house, it is more than likely from sadness and a lack of social support, not a sudden illness or loss of abilities due to an onset of a mental issue.
A Little Help
Oftentimes, all a loved one needs is a little extra help and support. Just an extra hand can give an aging parent the boost they need to remain independent and resume living life on their terms.
Be very careful not to confuse declining physical ability for declining mental ability. As we age, our bodies are less and less able to handle the physical demands that we once found effortless and easy. It happens to us all. To handle this properly, it’s always best to work with your loved one to find a solution rather than go behind their back. More times than not, that shelf is just too high or that box is just a bit too heavy. It’s not a matter of them not knowing what to do, it’s a matter of them not being able to physically do it.
Above all else, be kind. Discussing one’s care for what is the last years of their life is a major undertaking emotionally. Feelings of mortality slowly creep in, and there is a danger that depression will take over.
You know your loved one better than anyone else, and you are capable of adjusting your approach to these sensitive issues better than someone without intimate knowledge of the situation. Whether a straightforward or slow approach is best is up to you and your understanding of your loved one.
It’s not easy to talk to your parents about what you think is best for them. They raised you and helped make you who you are; it’s sad and devastating to see them slowly lose that authority because of mental or physical decline. It’s hard to suddenly find yourself in the dual role of both the child of and guardian of your parent or parents. But just as they did everything for you out of love, so should you.
Above all else, convey how much you respect and love them and that you wish only the best for them. Make sure they understand that you helping them is an honor, considering how much they have done for you throughout your life. Love is the most important ingredient in any conversation.
As stated before, this conversation is not an easy one to have. It takes honesty, patience, and understanding to successfully engage your parent in a talk about what you feel is best for them in their twilight years. It can be awkward and stressful, but it is necessary. And it should be had before it’s too late; that is, before your parent is incapable of conveying their wishes exactly as they would like them to be.
By discussing these important topics early and often, you will ensure that their golden years are truly golden.