As our parents age, we have to have many conversations that we know are necessary, but that we’d give anything to avoid.
Talking about your parent’s last wishes. Discussing long-term care options. Admitting to your parent that you alone can’t provide the care they need anymore. These are all difficult, and sometimes, necessary conversations.
If entered into without at least some consideration and planning, these conversations can quickly spiral into arguments that leave one or both parties feeling angry, resentful, and hurt. To prevent this, it’s important to prepare - both intellectually and emotionally.
These tips can help you negotiate the most difficult topics when talking with your aging loved ones.
Know what conversations are likely to be the hardest for each of you.
We all have our emotional triggers. Maybe you just can’t stomach the idea of talking to mom about moving her to a long-term care facility. Maybe talking about money makes you incredibly uncomfortable.
There’s no rule that says you have to be the one to have all the difficult conversations with your parent. If there’s someone else, like a sibling or other relative, who’s willing to step in, allow him or her to help. No one can do everything, and if you’re the primary caregiver for your loved one, you need to allow yourself to ask for and accept assistance.
At the same time, you likely have some idea of what topics your parent or loved one will find most upsetting. While that doesn’t change the fact that you have to talk about these things, it does mean that you should take that into consideration when preparing for the talk. Approach the subject as gently as possible, and be willing to back off and pick it up again at another time if necessary.
Choose an appropriate time.
Tact will go a long way when it comes time to talk about hot-button issues like whether mom should continue driving, or whether dad has saved enough to fully cover his retirement. If possible, it’s best to wait until everyone is relaxed, immediate needs are met, and there aren’t other major issues looming in the background.
Of course, sometimes - like with the driving issue - you’ll be forced to talk before everyone is ready. If that’s the case, you can still often set yourselves up for success by paying attention to things like time of day, setting, and participants.
Is your dad usually more cheery in the morning? Try to broach the topic at breakfast.
Does your mom take difficult news better from your brother than from you? Ask him to take part in the exchange.
Prepare a list of questions or points you want to make so you don’t end up having to have the conversation twice.
The only thing worse than having to have a difficult conversation with your loved one is having it twice because you forgot to ask a vital question.
To prevent this, prepare a list of questions you need to ask, points you need to make, or information you need to get and keep it handy to refer to while you’re talking.
Let’s say you’re concerned about your parent’s ability to continue living alone. You’d want to make sure you mentioned - gently, of course - specific issues you’d noticed, like difficulty getting up the stairs or forgetfulness over how to turn on the TV.
Or perhaps you need to clarify something in your parent’s estate planning and final wishes. These can be confusing topics anyway, so having written topics to make sure you cover will be a great help.
Since it’s always possible that you’ll be interrupted or that your loved one just won’t be up to finishing the discussion, having a written list will allow you to pick up the conversation again when it’s a better time without forgetting anything.
Want to learn more about handling tough issues with aging loved ones? Read our post “Talking About Assisted Living with Elderly Parents.”