Often time’s family members are hesitant to talk with aging parents about common topics of concern such as changes to health, transportation, home care, legal and financial issues as well as retirement housing. Geriatric professionals suggest it is much better to have these parent conversations sooner rather than later. It is often too late to make informed decisions or be sensitive to everyone’s point of view once a personal or medical crisis occurs. Decisions that could have been made in advance end up being made in a rush; resulting in regret, remorse and unnecessary expense.
Such conversations are not always easy. Adult children may avoid difficult communications regarding health concerns because they may not want to face the fact their parents are getting older. They may also have concerns that asking too many questions may jeopardize good relationships with parents and siblings. They may also wish to avoid the additional responsibilities that are sure to come as parent care issues are exposed. On the other hand, aging parents may object to discussions about finances because they wish to remain independent or they may feel their children are “prying” where they are not welcome.
Yet communications about a senior relocation, their daily activities, long term care, advanced directives and other end of life issues are very important. Individuals who prepare and communicate their plans and wishes gain a sense of comfort that their wishes will be honored. They are able to determine their own surrogate decision-makers and gain confidence that family members will act in a timely manner and in accordance with their wishes.
The rest of the family will benefit from increased clarity and decreased conflict with siblings. They gain a sense of comfort knowing they are respecting their parents’ decisions and values.
A Dignified Approach
Look for openings to introduce the idea of a family discussion. Perhaps your parent mentions they have just had a medical checkup or meeting with a financial advisor. Perhaps they are considering putting a home up for sale and wonder aloud what the real estate market is like. Take these opportunities to let mom and dad know that you would like very much to understand how they envision the next few years so you can help support that vision.
Sharing information through family meetings with parents, spouse, children, siblings and other key people will help everyone express their views. Ongoing active communication among all family members is the foundation to a strong support system, yet it’s true some families have trouble getting started or staying on task once they get together. In those situations, it may be advisable to engage a geriatric care manager or family mediator to help everyone’s voice be heard, especially that of the senior adult.
Any conversation, even those that are one-on-one, should honor the three things that are most important to older adults: independence, choice and dignity. Be respectful and take the time to really listen to your parents’ wishes. Let your siblings know in advance that they should do the same. Do not let your own concerns control the direction of initial conversations. In the early stages, ask open –ended questions and do not assume you know the answers. As communications become more regular, you will have the opportunity to frame your own needs and concerns in a way that will be more welcome.
If your car was veering out of control and you suddenly realized you could steer it to safety on your own, you would feel better. Similarly, our parents sometimes feel disconcerted by sudden changes to health or finances in late life. When we take time to listen to their concerns or ask their opinion, we are placing the steering wheel in their hands. Conversely, when we try and “railroad” a situation and force our own solutions upon unwilling parties, we remove their sense of control.
Many adult children have bought into the theory that a role reversal takes place as our parents’ age. It is simply not true or helpful to operate in such a way. You parents may ask for your input or they may not, but avoid coming to them with your own plan for their future unless you have taken the time to listen to them first. While it is true you and your parents may experience some changes in your relationship, they are still in charge of their own life and barring debilitating cognitive impairment, they still have full legal rights to make decisions about their own person and possessions.
As caring family members, we are only as good as our ability to communicate with our parents in a way that lets them know we are here to support them according to their wishes. After all, that is what we will all hope for as we age and confront some of the same issues.