April 05, 2016
It’s an inevitable conversation that eventually needs to be had. Having a plan in place for broaching tough topics with your parents as they get older will make a challenging discussion easier to handle.
Here are a few suggestions for talking to your parents about aging:
Many people wait until there’s a crisis before sitting down with an elderly parent to discuss arrangements for elders’ later years. When a parent is in the hospital with a broken hip, in the middle stages of dementia or is suddenly widowed and left alone, you’ve waited too long. Consequently, you will be making decisions in a stressful, rather than a calm, context. Be sure to sit down with your parents long before any action needs to be taken.
This talk isn’t about you – it’s about them. Exactly how does an aging parent want to spend his or her later years? Are they determined to live alone as long as possible? Is assisted living something that appeals to them, and if so, is the money there to pay for it? Make it clear to your parents that you’re not rushing them or pressuring them – merely that you want to understand what their wishes are, so that, together, you can make their later years as happy and comfortable as possible.
It’s often said that, later in life, parents become the children and children become the parents. In reality, this is not a good thing. Despite their declining abilities, your parents are not children and don’t want to be treated as such. Elders want and need their preferences and feelings to be respected – nobody wants to be infantilized and made powerless. It’s better to position yourself as your parent’s advocate and partner in their aging process, and not be heavy-handed with them. Elders need to feel in control of their own lives, and this need should be honored.
As parents age and perhaps become forgetful, it’s important that adult children know whether or not documents such as wills, advance healthcare directives and powers of attorney have been prepared and executed – and where such records are kept. When talking with your parents about the need to have things buttoned up, make it clear that you’re not asking “who gets what” after their death, but merely making certain that they have a will. And when talking about money, don’t judge or scold. A surprising number of elders have credit card debt or have been less than responsible with their money – things they often hide from their adult children. Be understanding and collaborative with your elderly parents – not punitive.
In most families, there’s one adult sibling who, because of personality, temperament or geography, ends up being the primary player in managing their parents’ aging. However, it’s better for siblings to work together when expressing concern for their parents. Acting as a group ensures that everybody is on the same page and that there are no secrets. It’s imperative that a spirit of cooperation and concern be the guiding light – not old resentments among siblings that have been simmering since childhood. For the sake of your parents’ peace of mind, put conflicts in the bottom drawer!
When you sit down with your parents, be prepared to talk specifics. Are they eligible for government programs designed to assist the elderly? Do you understand the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? (Medicare does not cover long-term care, while Medicaid pays long-term care expense only for individuals below a certain level of income). Do your parents have long-term care insurance in place, and if so, do you have a copy of the policy? Is it time for a parent to stop driving? Are there transportation services in your community designed especially for the elderly or homebound? The more concrete information you have on the services your aging parent may need, the better.
Discussions with elderly relatives about how to manage the aging process can be tinged with melancholy and uncomfortable. However, if done with reassurance and sensitivity, elders needn’t feel “managed,” or even worse, ambushed. Openness, kindness, and clear, honest communication can make the discussion productive rather than frustrating.