Do you remember having “the talk”? I’m referring to the moment when your mom or dad (or both) sat you down and talked to you about the birds and the bees. You know, the sex talk. My parents never gave me “the talk”. Maybe they thought my fifth-grade Sex Education class would be sufficient. Or maybe they thought one of my two older sisters had already spilled the beans. While I missed out on this milestone, my parents had countless other talks with me regarding decision-making, dating, career goals, and many other topics. Parents love giving sage advice to their children. It’s a key component of the parent-child relationship. As young children, we listened respectfully, having no appreciation for the gravity of our parents’ words. In adolescence, we half-listened impatiently, wondering why they were telling us things we already knew. We never imagined (or at least I didn’t) that a time would come when the tables would be turned and the roles reversed.
If you are blessed to have your parents around in their golden years, they will likely experience a decline in function and you may find yourself in a new role as their caregiver. At a minimum, this role will require you to ensure they are safe, eating properly, attending doctor’s appointments, and taking their medications. For high-functioning aging parents, this can often be accomplished through regular phone calls and help from others in their close circle. However, for aging parents with dementia or a significant decline in physical health, the caregiver role is much more involved. You will ultimately be faced with the reality that they can no longer live independently. This transition can be very difficult for both the aging parent and the adult child. Parents are often in denial about the extent of their impairment and are reluctant to give up control. It’s natural for them to be fearful about the future and many will avoid talking about it altogether. The adult child often has mixed feelings. There may be feelings of sadness, anger, and fear. Many will feel overwhelmed with their new responsibilities. Some will resent the interference with their personal and professional lives, leading to feelings of guilt.
While the natural reaction is to put your head in the sand, the worst thing you can do is to delay having these crucial conversations. Remember the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? (Translation for the young adults: “It’s easier to prevent something from happening in the first place than to repair the damage after it has occurred.”) While we can’t prevent aging, we can certainly mitigate many of its challenges by preparing ahead of time. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a crisis with your parents to begin talking about their needs. It’s best to take a proactive approach to planning for your aging parents’ future.
Begin having these conversations while your parents are still healthy.
One of the most common barriers to having these discussions is the inability to gather key stakeholders. Often, siblings are spread across the country, each busy with their own lives and responsibilities. The holidays are a time when most families have an opportunity to spend quality time together and it’s a perfect time to have “the talk” with your aging parents. Your parents have noticed changes in their bodies, new aches and pains, the need to move more slowly, and perhaps changes in their memory. There is a good chance that they are just as concerned as you, but their primary role is to protect you. They are unlikely to broach the topic without coaxing because they don’t want you to worry. Parents also don’t want to feel like they are a burden to their children.
The reality is that planning ahead is the most important thing you can do to minimize disruptions to your life and to theirs.
Here are 5 tips to help you begin these conversations with your aging parents:
If possible, talk with your siblings ahead of time to share observations, concerns, and possible solutions. Make a list of the things you want to discuss to help you stay on track and avoid distractions.
Aging is very difficult. Despite the challenges they face, you are the child and they are still the parents. It is important to approach this conversation with empathy. Use phrases like, “I know this must be difficult for you” and “I want you to know I’m here to help.”
Take your time
Don’t try to solve all of the problems in a 20-minute conversation. Discuss one or two concerns then give your parents time to digest the information. Revisit the discussion in the days and weeks to come and use those opportunities to discuss additional concerns.
Be collaborative, not directive
Things will go much more smoothly if your parents play an active role in making the decisions that will directly impact their lives. Don’t tell them what they will do or where they will live. Solicit their input about their hopes and wishes for the future.
You and your parents may experience a full range of emotions, from sadness to anger. Some parents will acknowledge your concerns and may become tearful. Some will be resistant and uncooperative. Depending on the family dynamics and prior experiences, some parents may be suspicious of their adult child’s motives. The best way to handle these reactions and objections is to stay calm. Validate your parents’ feelings and reassure them that you have their best interests at heart.
No one wants a stressful holiday, but I assure you that taking advantage of this family time to begin talking with your parents about their future will save all of you many headaches and heartaches moving forward. Click here for my free guide, “Talking to Your Aging Parents”, where I walk you through the specific issues you must consider to maximize your aging parents’ safety and well-being. I pray that you and your family enjoy a holiday season filled with peace, joy, fellowship, amazing food, and most of all, love.
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Thanks Doc, great article… posted it on my business page.
Thank you so much for sharing!
We are going through this delicate period again with another elderly family member. It’s sooo tough and heartbreaking to have these discussions, but absolutely necessary. Thanks,Doc!
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. I hope the article and the worksheet will be helpful to you and your family. God Bless!
And aging parents should talk to their children about their preferences for their lives, especially end-of-life care. We can make it easier for them by making those decisions, putting them in writing, and discussing with our children before a crisis occurs.
I completely agree, Dr. Oglesby! Thank you for your comment. Please share the article with your patients, friends, and family members.