As a social worker, I have seen families, time and time again, scramble to handle elder care emergencies like falls, acute infections, strokes, heart attacks, or sudden declines in functioning without the important tools and information they need. Challenging care decisions must be made quickly in these situations, and the patient’s immediate family members often bear the financial and emotional weight of these choices. Without the proper plans and documents in place, seniors and caregivers alike are left feeling stressed, confused and unprepared.
These kinds of scenarios are not uncommon, so why aren’t families getting together to plan for the future and all the uncertainties it holds?
Tackling Tough Conversations With Aging Parents
We plan for just about everything throughout our lives—education and career decisions, major purchases, where we want to live, when we’d like to retire, etc. However, it would seem that a parent and child talking about future plans is a rarer occurrence than we’d like to think. Discussing legal and financial details, long-term care options and end-of-life preferences can be uncomfortable, but denial, procrastination and lack of communication come with serious consequences.
Fortunately, there are a few simple guidelines you and your family can follow now to help prepare for many of the difficult scenarios that may come with advancing age and illness. These tough conversations take time and patience, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to begin an honest dialogue about elder care planning before a crisis strikes.
10 Tips on Planning for Aging Parents’ Needs
Find a conversation starter.Take a chance and start a conversation with your parents about health, illness and aging. Try using a story in the media, a book, a television show or a movie that you saw recently as a jumping-off point. Let your family read/watch the material and talk to them about it a few days later. This will give you an idea of how open everyone is to having these discussions.
Personal anecdotes can have a powerful impact.If you have a friend or another family member who experienced a health crisis recently, share this story with your parents. Discuss the ways in which this person’s preparation (or lack thereof) impacted their family’s ability to cope and their own well-being. See if relaying this experience naturally transitions into discussing your own family situation.
Ask sincere questions.Create discussions that enable your parent to examine their life and the meaning that it holds for them. These reflections help strengthen relationships within the family, which can help to increase trust and facilitate open communication. Ask questions like, “What has been your most meaningful experience?” “What are you most proud of?” “Can you tell me about the day I was born?” “What is it like to watch me be a parent?” If you show genuine interest in their past, their point of view, their opinions and their dreams, you will be better equipped to assist and support them no matter what the future holds.
Be a good listener.Silence is an undervalued communication tool. Do not forget to really listen to your parent’s wants, needs and concerns. If you interrupt or try to immediately interpret what your parent is saying, it can create communication barriers. Make sure to listen and then ask follow-up questions to be sure you fully understand what was said.
Be conscious of your terminology.The words and phrases we use to communicate may seem like an insignificant part of this conversation, but they reveal quite a bit about a person’s thoughts on and feelings about what they’re discussing. For example, estate planning and end-of-life care tend to be difficult or even “morbid” topics of discussion because they revolve around death. However, they are extremely important to cover. When death has come up in the past, does your parent usually use the word death? Die? Deceased? Passed on? Met their maker? Left us? Respect their terminology and the distance it may or may not create between them and that topic. Allow your parent to protect themselves with their own language, and follow their lead.
Take your time.If your family is not used to discussing sensitive topics openly and directly, things cannot change overnight. Use the aforementioned tips to address small aspects of long-term care planning one at a time. For example, break legal planning, financial planning, long-term care options, funeral arrangements and other topics into individual conversations rather than tackling them all at once. Follow up every few months until you are satisfied with the depth of the conversation and your understanding of your parents’ preferences and preparations.
Remember your history.Each family has their own set of unique communication styles, personal history, cultural influences, generational influences, gender roles, expectations, etc. Work with what you have. Forcing a conversation will only be unproductive and distressing for everyone involved.
Be honest.Explain your genuine reasons for addressing these matters. Most adult children want to do right by their parents but cannot advocate for them without first gathering some crucial information and authorizations. Express your concerns and desire to ensure their preferences are respected both in life and after they’ve passed.
Encourage legal preparations.Discussions are fantastic and absolutely help you facilitate and follow through on your parents’ wishes. However, conversations around the kitchen table won’t give you or your siblings the legal ability to make decisions about your parents’ care should the worst happen. Working with an elder law attorney to formalize and sign important documents like wills, powers of attorney (POA), advance directives and trusts will ensure Mom and Dad’s plans are carried out with their best interests in mind.
Get creative and be persistent.Conversations about future plans with aging family members may not work the first time or even the fifth time. Hang in there. Adapt your approach, do some research and try again. The process of hammering out the details may not be pleasant, but doing so is an invaluable gift that will likely benefit the entire family.