If you’ve been engaged in a dialogue with your parents about healthy aging over the years, you probably know how they envision living in their older age and can help them achieve that. But if you haven’t started that conversation, then it’s time to have “the talk” with them. Or, shall we say, the “other talk.”
You can’t help your parents if you have no idea what their wishes are. When I say “their wishes,” I’m not talking about what they wrote on their advance healthcare directives. I’m talking about how they picture their life in older age. Do they plan to stay in the family home until the day they die? Do they want to downsize to a condo? Perhaps move to a life care community?
Regardless of the scenario, it’s important to ask them if they visualize a time when they might need assistance, from something as simple as weekly house cleaning service, to home care provided by an agency.
Most of us who live into our 70s and beyond will eventually require some type of care assistance, and many people will rely on their children to help provide that care. It’s better to discuss things earlier than to wait for a crisis to start the ball rolling. That being said, this can be a delicate and emotional topic for everyone, and a difficult one to get off the ground.
Here are some tips to help you and your parents start a positive, productive, and compassionate dialogue about their future.
1. Develop empathy.
This is the most important step in the process. Picture yourself at your parents’ age and consider how you’d react if your child wanted to discuss, say, your ability to continue driving safely. How would you want to be approached about that topic? If you can put yourself in your parents’ shoes, it will help you both.
2. Understand your parents’ fears.
Aging brings with it many losses: loss of physical strength and function; a possible decline in vision and hearing; and overall loss of independence. Be sensitive to these fears when discussing aging with your parents.
3. Think of yourself as a partner, not a parent.
Don’t act like you’re assuming authority over your parents’ affairs. Your goal shouldn’t be to impose your will and values on them. Instead, you should actively listen to their plans and goals and validate them to the extent possible. This softer approach is also more likely to be received well.
4. Choose your battles.
If you disagree, that’s OK. But you don’t have to say so. If you believe your parents’ plans or dreams are wildly impractical, table that particular discussion for a while.
5. Stress the positives.
Tell your parents you know they want to be healthy in later life and to age well so they can enjoy that time–with grandkids, traveling, or whatever is on their wish list. Let them know you want to offer support so they can do just that.
6. Talk to your doctor.
That’s right: your doctor. He or she may be able to offer tips on how to open the discussion with your parents. Or, if you believe your parents need immediate assistance but have brushed off your concerns, your doctor may be able to reach out directly to your parents to express your concerns to them. Often, people accept information from a physician more readily than from a family member.
7. Talk to your parents’ doctor.
If possible, attend an appointment with one or both parents. This is especially useful for reviewing a draft of your parents’ advance directives. By involving your parents’ physician, you foster a team caregiving concept.
8. Don’t ignore safety issues.
If you believe immediate intervention is required due to safety concerns, stick to those specific safety issues when talking to your parents. Say things like, “Can we agree it’s not safe to leave candles burning on the counter when you leave the house to grocery shop?” It’s hard to argue against the logic or phrasing there.
9. Be patient but persistent.
If your parents don’t respond well when you first broach the aging talk, let it go for a while. But don’t let it go forever. Bring it up again, gently, until you make some headway.
If you’re in your 30s or 40s, you may think you can put off this discussion for a long time, especially if your parents are healthy. But this isn’t a one-time conversation. Your parents’ plans, goals, and needs may change as the years pass. If you begin the dialogue today, you’ll find it much less stressful to step in with assistance if it becomes necessary.
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss 12 Signs Your Parents Might Need Assisted Care.