If you have a loved one who is aging the issue is not if but when a time will come that additional help may be needed. In my experience as a medical social worker and a caregiver for my parents I know this is a conversation that is very difficult to initiate. Nobody likes to talk about aging, illness or death. Let’s be honest, this is something we all will face. This conversation involves tackling tough topics:
- Getting sick and not being able to care for yourself.
- What do you want done if you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself.
- How do you feel about aging and eventually facing your own death?
- What insurance or money do you have available if you need additional help?
- Is it time to leave the place you have called home?
- Is your will or healthcare power of attorney properly completed?
You want to start this conversation from a place of love and caring. It also has to be a collaboration. You also have to start slowly and be aware that it is a process. This will not be one discussion but a series of talks over time as circumstances change and new challenges may arise.
There are things you can do to help it go as smoothly as possible:
Begin the conversation when your parents are alert and healthy and can make decisions from a competent place. They will be more comfortable and less defensive having this discussion when there are no current problems or deficits.
Wait for an Opening or Create One
Move slowly. Mention a friend whose parents are ill or that you are updating your will. Suggest that it got you thinking about your mom and dad. Ask if they have thought about aging and what they would want to happen? What kind of help would they want and from who? Would they want to remain at home or consider moving to a place where more support might be available?
Share the reason you are wanting to talk about this. You want them to be safe, prepared, and understand what options are available for them. You are not angry at them and don’t believe they are incompetent if that is true. Tell them you want them to continue to have as much quality in their life as possible and you want to contribute to make that happen.
Make sure the time you initiate this discussion is optimal. Don’t do it when you have to leave in half an hour. Do it when there are no distractions or additional people that don’t need to be a part of the conversation. Don’t include too many people because that may make your senior feel more defensive. Choose a stress free time to initiate this talk.
If you have a good relationship with your parents than you may be the ideal candidate to initiate this talk. If not you may want to include a trusted family member friend, doctor, priest, neighbor, that can help your loved ones feel more comfortable about addressing these sensitive topics. If you are doing this with someone else you may want to meet ahead of time to plan on what direction you want the conversation to go and who will play what role. Rehearse what you want to say and try to anticipate their responses. Make sure the message you give your parents with someone else is a unified message.
Choose the opening topic
You don’t want to throw out all of these major questions at one time. That will feel overwhelming and cause any future discussion to derail. Pick the topic that you believe is most relevant to them and one that your parents will be most open to.
Maybe they just came back from a doctor visit. You can use that as a place to begin to address questions about potential health concerns. If you know they are feeling their home is becoming harder to maintain that gives you an entry way to ask about what their thoughts are about the next step if the house becomes increasingly hard to manage.
Some Final Thoughts
If the conversation does not go well don’t be discouraged. A process has begun that you can return to and reference at a future date. Take notes about what has been said. Perhaps you can all agree on a future time to set including whatever requests your parents make regarding the parameters. Maybe the participants can agree to gather information to facilitate the next meeting. Ask your parents if there is someone else they would like to attend future discussions.
Try to remain empathetic and compassionate with each other as you enter this uncharted water. If it is clear you need an impartial mediator to manage the discussion you might want to get a geriatric care manager. They can be found at aginglifecare.org.
Finally, be patient. This is new territory for you all. When a parent agrees to work through these issues, there is no greater gift they can give you.