How to Talk to Your Parents About the Future (Part 1)

The holidays are upon us, and many people will be spending time with their elderly parents. Those who live far away and don’t get to see their parents very often may notice issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps Mom or Dad is becoming increasingly forgetful or may be having trouble taking care of day-to-day needs on their own. It can be difficult to talk to parents about the inevitabilities of aging and what to do about those changes, so we’d like to offer some tips for approaching such subjects. Below we’ve included signs that a parent might need help and suggestions on how to approach tough conversations. Next month we’ll cover specific concerns, such as driving, in-home and long-term care, and end-of-life issues.

Signs Your Aging Parent Needs Help

It’s hard for seniors to admit that they need help, as they are understandably afraid of losing their independence. Consequently, it’s typically up to their adult children to recognize the signs that assistance may be needed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a parent will need to go to an assisted living or nursing home, but they may need some support in their home.

Here are 15 signs to look out for when visiting aging loved ones during the holidays (or any time of the year):

  • A cluttered, dirty or disorganized house or yard
  • Poor personal hygiene or disheveled clothing
  • Spoiled or expired groceries that don’t get thrown away
  • Changes in mood or extreme mood swings
  • Missed important appointments
  • Late-payment notices, bounced checks and calls from collections
  • Forgetfulness
  • Uncertainty or confusion when performing once-familiar tasks
  • Poor diet or weight loss
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Trouble getting up from a seated position
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Forgetfulness about taking medications
  • Broken appliances
  • Unexplained dents or scratches on a car

If you notice any of the above situations or if your parent’s health or happiness seems compromised, it may be time to have a conversation with them and find the right care options for their circumstances. Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to have a talk. It’s important to get concerns on the table as soon as possible and start a dialogue.

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Approach a Sensitive Topic with Care

Tread delicately when you approach tough conversations, and test the waters to get a sense of whether your parent is open to the discussion. You can ask open-ended questions such as the following in a normal, conversational tone:

  • How is it around the house?
  • How is driving going?
  • How is your health? What’s the doctor saying these days?

Short questions like these may be enough to get Mom or Dad talking, but here are additional techniques you can use to get the conversation moving:

  • Refer to a friend’s or a family member’s experience: Explain how their situation made you realize that the family needs to make some plans so you don’t end up in the same boat.
  • Take a cue from current events: A local medical-ethics controversy can serve as an opening to talk about what would be best to do if such a thing were to happen in your family.
  • Use story lines from books, movies and television: Popular culture is full of narratives about aging and illness that could create an opening for conversation.
  • Come up with your own plan and share it: One example would be doing your own advance-care planning and asking your parent to do the same.

Try to maintain a nonthreatening approach, and remain calm and respectful in your communication. Elderly loved ones usually appreciate an honest conversation. Let them know that you are concerned about their well-being and want to learn about their wishes so that the best decisions can be made for everyone involved.

Finally, make sure everyone in the family is on board by discussing the situation with your siblings. Not only will the discussion allow the family as a whole to make informed decisions, but the talk can include each sibling’s role in helping Mom or Dad. For instance, the sibling who is known for their nurturing ways might take on caretaking responsibilities, while the one who is known for their organization skills could pay the bills. Address how you all will share the responsibilities so no one feels unduly burdened.