Guest Blog Post: Tough Conversations with Our Aging Loved Ones

Dick Edwards

Dick Edwards

By Dick Edwards, Retired Mayo Clinic Eldercare Specialist, Speaker, and Author of “Mom, Dad… Can We Talk? Insight and Perspectives to Help Us Do What’s Best for Our Aging Parents” and “My Grandparent: A Life & Times Journal for Grandchildren of All Ages.” 

Dick Edwards visited The Kenwood by Senior Star in Spring of 2013 to speak with adult children regarding tough conversations with parents. Here’s some advice he shared during his discussion.

The Talk

“Mom, Dad…Can We Talk?” is more than the title of a book. It’s an invitation to conversation, to ask questions, listen, learn and be guided, as our parents grow older. Adult children care about their parents. We feel a responsibility and want to do the right thing, but often we don’t know the “right thing” is.

It would be nice if our parents wrote us a definitive guide for this stage of family life entitled: “What to Do If I Get Difficult, Daffy or Die.” Typically, they don’t. So, we need to have conversations with them to grow our understanding of their needs and preferences – conversations that help us anticipate and prepare for future circumstances we might encounter that help us prepare for “when the time comes” so we can do the “right thing.”

These conversations are not easy for everyone. We may feel awkward asking our aging parents certain things. We may feel these conversations invade our parents’ privacy or acknowledge their mortality. We may not be comfortable ourselves with the realities of our parents’ aging. Or, we might not see an opportune time, find the words or the courage to start the conversation. Nevertheless, we know they are important and we need to get started.

Begin by asking questions of yourself and your siblings. How does our family communicate? Do we use lots of words or few words? Are family communications open and face-to-face? Or, do we rely on a designated spokesperson? Do we communicate feelings as well as facts? Is everyone in the loop? Do some prefer things in writing so they have time to ponder before responding? Understand how your family communicates and build on it.

Next, make two lists: 1) What I Need to Know, and 2) What I Need to Say.

A helpful framework for the Need to Know conversations is facts and what-ifs.

For example, “Mom, Dad… Do you have a will? Where is it? An attorney? A burial plot? How are your bank accounts set-up? Advanced directive? Preferences for a funeral or memorial service? What do you want us to do with the Hummel collection? The tools in the garage?” Some facts conversations are common to most families, others are unique.

What-if conversations are more personal and emotional and they are the most crucial as we seek to do “the right thing.” Here we anticipate circumstances we might experience and look for direction from our aging parents on how to best manage them “if the time comes.”

For example, “What if he goes first? Under what circumstances would she want to relocate? Where? What if driving becomes a concern? What if there are signs of dementia? Depression? Excessive drinking? What if new romance blossoms with talk of marriage?” Again, some what-if conversations are common to most families and others are unique.

The What I Need to Say conversations become the adult child’s opportunity to express feelings of gratitude and affection we too often leave unspoken. For example, “I think you were a great Dad. I’m sorry for all the grief I caused you during my college years. Thanks for teaching me the important things. I want you to know that I love you.” What do you need to say to your aging parents? Think about it.

These conversations are not a single event, not a scheduled sit-down for The Talk. They are a series of relaxed, non-threatening conversations over time in naturally occurring settings – for example, while sharing a ride, doing dishes, playing golf or shopping. They are cumulative recognizance to gather insight and understanding. Once again, it’s children seeking direction from parents.

Ask: Who will initiate conversations? Who has credibility with whom, and on what topics? Who does Mom listen to? Who has Dad’s trust? Is it an adult child? A grandchild? Or maybe, a son-in-law?

How will the substance of the conversations be shared with others in the family so people are together and working from the same basic understanding of needs and preferences? This should all be out of a shared loved and respect for one another and the aging parents.

And remember: Aging parents are often more ready for these conversations than their adult children.

The bottom line goes something like this: “Mom, Dad…we want what you want. Tell us what you want, so that when the time comes, if the time comes, we’ll know what to do.”

Start the conversations. You won’t regret it.

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