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Before it’s Too Late: How to Have the Tough Conversation with Your Aging Parents

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonDecember 5, 2012

It’s important that families have candid, open discussions with older loved ones about plans and goals surrounding long-term care, end-of-life and other age related issues. But getting these conversations started, and making them productive, can be really challenging.

Our older loved ones may resist these talks because they think it’s too early. Anyone under the age of 75 most likely does not consider him or herself  “old.” After all, they say 70 is the new 50. But memory impairment, broken hips, heart conditions, and the need for care are common realities that older people and their families must confront. Or it may be the adult children who avoid the discussion because they still picture their parents in their primes…until it’s too late and the stark reality of crisis catches up with them.

Seniors may also avoid these conversations simply because they’re unpleasant. Few of us want to face the gradual loss of independence associated with aging, let alone discuss the cold details of our funeral arrangements.

That’s why these talks are often referred to simply as “the tough conversation” in the senior living world. The denial of difficult truths, or at least resistance to discussing them, can make talking to our aging parents about their current and future needs challenging unless you engage early and often in a thoughtful, respectful exchange of ideas about long-term term care and end-of-life matters.

Other factors can also complicate these discussions, for example, the role of other family members, including your siblings. This article includes advice about dealing with disagreements between siblings regarding their parent’s care. Another consideration is whether you’re having this talk with your mother or father. We also invite you to check our post regarding how to have these difficult conversation with your fathers.

Using the Holidays as an Opportunity to Talk

In a recent National Public Radio interview A Place for Mom Senior Vice President, Tami Cumings discussed why the holidays often lead to serious discussions with our aging parents about long-term care.”During the holidays families get together with loved ones after not seeing them for a while. They may notice changes that raise red flags indicating that maybe they need to start having a conversation with Mom or Dad about what they want for the future.”

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Jon Tagatz, Executive Director of The Heritage at Brentwood, a continuing care retirement community in Brentwood, Tennessee, echoed Cumings’ point, “The winter holidays give families a unique and important opportunity to discuss aging family members’ lifestyle goals and future care. By identifying individual goals, families can begin to move towards real solutions.”

Cumings also emphasized the importance of having these conversations sooner rather than later, “We get a lot of families who come to us who are in crisis mode because they’ve not really had the discussion with their parents ahead of time, and they don’t really know what their wishes are. And then it’s even more of a crisis situation.”

6 Practical Tips for Families

Here are 6 tips about how to approach tough conversations with aging loved ones, whether they occur  around the holidays or any other time of the year:

1. Be Open
 Be candid and open when you speak with your loved one. Explain your concerns specifically and clearly without unnecessary euphemisms or dancing around the issues. Share your own feelings. Use “I” statements, and remind your older loved one that your concerns come from love.

2. Follow the Golden Rule
Imagine the roles are reversed and that you are the elderly person. How would you want your loved ones to address you about their concerns?

3. Remind Your Loved One That You’re Here to Support Them
Try not to let your parent feel threatened, or see you as an adversary in the interaction. Reassure them that you will be with them through thick and thin, and that you have their best interest at heart before anything else.

4. Allow Your Loved One to Feel in Control
A sense of a loss of independence and autonomy is one of the biggest causes of distress in these situations. Make it clear to your loved one that the purpose of this conversation is to clarify their wishes about the future, not to force some already made decision on them.

5. Tell Your Loved One about Your Own Needs and Limitations
Some older parents may expect one of their children, perhaps you, to take care of them in their old age, regardless of circumstances. Let your parent know now if this isn’t a realistic expectation because of your own needs or obligations.

6. Leave the Conversation with an Action Point
It’s easy for conversations such as these to become mired in abstractions or vague promises to talk about it later. Make it a goal to come away with some clear takeaways in terms of your parents’ wishes and expectations.

Get more tips on these tough conversations and gain insight on how to talk to mom or dad when it comes time  to move them to a senior community: Moving Elderly Parents: Convincing Mom and Dad.

How do you advise having difficult conversations with older loved ones? Have you had one that went horribly wrong? Do you have a surefire tip to add? We welcome your comments below.

Jeff Anderson
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Jeff Anderson
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