As our relatives age, we will be called upon to support them and make decisions with them or on their behalf. This pressure often leaves caregivers stressed and overwhelmed as they have to imagine what it is their loved ones would choose. 

We can minimize this stress, improve care and support, and reduce family conflict if we proactively have discussions with our relatives about their future wants and needs.

This is a conversation journey; any starting point is right and there is really no ending point. This is about a series of connected and fluid discussions that help us learn about the expectations, fears, concerns and choices of our aging relatives.

In order to best support our loved ones we must first understand them. These discussions are best facilitated as a family unit. It is essential that all involved family members participate in these discussions, in order to minimize family discord later. 

These talks won’t be easy and will explore some sensitive topics. Take the hard road now, when you are in a non-crisis mode and best suited to make decisions. Take the time to properly evaluate, analyze and process all options so that if and when a crisis occurs, your energy is spent supporting your loved one and not agonizing over choices or trying to manage family discord.

It’s helpful to handle these conversations using a four-pronged approach: Connection, Aging, Recent Event, and Every Detail—C-A-R-E. (Keep in mind that it will probably take multiple discussions to cover all of the points outlined in this article.)

Step 1: Connection

Get to know your aging relatives in a different way. The goal is to learn about your loved ones’ relationships with their own aging relatives, in the past and in the present.

Ask questions such as:

  • Share some memories of times that you spent with your parents?  Your grandparents?
  • When did you move away from your parents’ home and what was that like?  Did you stay connected with them?  How did they support you?
  • Tell me something you admire about your parents?
  • Did your parents participate in your schooling? Describe how.
  • Did your parents influence your career and/or family choices?
  • Did your parents participate in your activities? Describe how.
  • How did your parents’ work lives/responsibilities impact your relationship with them?
  • Would you say you were close to your parents? Your grandparents? Were they close with one another?

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Step 2: Aging

Explore how your aging relatives experienced their own role of caregiving for their aging relatives. 

Ask questions such as:

  • Did your parents or another aging relative have any health problems?
  • How did you learn about their health problems and were you called upon or did you fall into a role of helping them as a caregiver?
  • Were your parents’ personal health and financial matters discussed with you or kept private? How did you manage this dynamic?
  • Did your parents include you in their financial matters in a formal way?
  • How did you work together with your siblings in relation to your own parents’ care and support?
  • Did you feel competent in your role as a caregiver? What do you wish had been or is different now?

Step 3: Recent Event

Step three helps you understand your loved ones’ perceptions of age-related events and gives insight into how they may or may not have agreed with how things were managed. It helps to employ external examples to generate discussion regarding specific, age-related situations.

You can use the media, a television show, a newspaper article, a book or a movie to kick-start the discussion. Or, if applicable, you can use an example of another family member, friend or neighbor who experienced a crisis, such as a hospitalization, diagnosis, a move to a care facility, or a cognitive disorder (dementia) and ask your aging loved ones to share their perspectives on the event.

Ask questions such as:

  • How did you hear about this event?
  • What was your gut reaction?
  • Do you know anyone who was in this situation? How did that turn out?
  • Do you agree with the decisions that were made? What would you have done differently?

Step 4: Every detail

This step is about learning exactly how your aging loved ones would want you to support and assist them in specific situations.

Now that the door is open and you have had several conversations about aging, you can slowly begin to introduce more specific care choices and financial discussions that personally and directly apply to your aging relatives. 

You will want to generate conversations surrounding financial and legal planning, and you can even meet with a professional in the field to facilitate these talks. You can discuss housing, medical treatments, home support, and how your aging relatives expect you and your siblings to support them. To reduce family discord and mistrust, try to have these discussions as a family unit.

If your relatives are resistant at this time, you can say something like, “Mom, I have so much respect and love for you. I want to do everything that I can to support you in the way you want to be supported. I don’t want to guess and make the wrong decision.” Or, “You know that my sister and I don’t agree on everything and you have always wanted us to get along. If we don’t understand what it is you want from us we will not be able to work together effectively and your care and our relationship will suffer.”

There is no way to predict every situation that can occur as we age. The more proactive discussions we have, and the more meaningful our relationships are, the better equipped we will be to support our aging relatives. Take the guessing out. Take the plunge and find out who your aging relatives are and what support they want.