It’s probably been a while since you’ve had a truly awkward conversation with your parents. But now that you’re getting older and your parents and in-laws are getting, well, much older, there are some serious talks that need to happen — ones that shouldn’t be pushed aside. This time, however, you’re probably going to have to be the one who starts — and maybe even finishes — many of them.
Having an aging parent can be a demanding and often burdensome challenge, especially when it comes to respecting their independence versus knowing what’s best for them. Seeing them slowly (or rapidly) lose their abilities will hopefully create a sense of empathy for the aging and a new appreciation for the little things you take for granted (jar openings, simple mathematical calculations, acceptable television volumes). But it will also give you a glimpse into your own future.
While there’s no ideal time for these tough conversations, sooner rather than later is the best rule of thumb. You want your loved ones to feel like they are in the driver’s seat of major life decisions. The worst thing is for an accident or a sudden decline in health to take the decision-making out of their hands. Just to note, these conversations are rarely, if ever, one and done; they are continual and they build upon each other. So start slow and lay a strong foundation of trust and support. Once you have some actual intel and answers you can start planning out the next steps, together.
1. The Physical Health Talk
A simple, “How you feeling?” can easily be brushed off. So you’re going to need to dig deeper into the physical health of your aging loved ones. Some clues to look for might be changed sleeping patterns, difficulty dealing with stairs, decreased appetite, or a loss in dexterity. Do you know their medical conditions, what medications they’re on, who their doctors are, and how often they visit? Their general well-being should be a never-ending conversation because it’s going to inform the outcomes of more than a few of these talks.
2. The Mental Health Talk
Similar to the Physical Health Talk in both approach and continuity, this conversation can serve as a check into both their emotional and cognitive states. Can your aging family members handle the everyday or are they getting confused, forgetful (even of trivial things), or frustrated? Do they feel scared, unsure, unclear, depressed, bored, or even angry? If you’re seeing significant shifts in their disposition or personality, you know those are going to spiral if left unchecked. You’re not a doctor (unless you are) but your job here is to be a detective and deduce some helpful ways to lessen the emotional burden on your family members.
3. The Living Arrangements Talk
A home once occupied by a nuclear family can soon become overwhelming when only one or two aging individuals continue to live there. The next time you stop by for a visit with the grandkids, do some snooping for some tell-tale signs that their living situation might be too much to handle. Are simple household repairs being neglected? Are the lawn and garden not being tended to? Is there less food in the fridge? Is mail piling up? These are visible and tangible examples that can serve as openings for the conversation about future living arrangements, particularly downsizing to a dwelling that’s much more manageable.
4. The Financial Talk
Money is yet another topic that tends to make people feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s finally time to open up the books on your family member’s finances. A good test is to ask your aging family member to walk you through where their money is coming from (Social Security, retirement funds, savings, investments, buried treasure). Are they spending more than they’re bringing in? Are they overpaying for anything like cable, electricity, or heating? Have them create a budget and itemize a list of all of their expenses for the year by going through their taxes, checkbooks, and credit card statements. If the numbers aren’t at least breaking even, then you’re going to need to engage in further financial planning.
5. The Expectations Talk
Managing the expectations of a loved one is often made all the more difficult when those expectations are never clearly spelled out. And you’re no Professor X, so you need to discover what exactly your family members expect from you in their later years. Do they have an eye on that spare bedroom in your house? How often do they expect to see you and the grandkids? Is assisted living an option? Knowing these expectations is the only way for you to figure out what you can actually offer them. This is also where pangs of guilt might make you overextend yourself. If there are things you can’t do due to time, distance, or other commitments that would adversely affect your life, be clear about why you can’t do them and try to figure out alternate methods for managing those expectations together.
6. The End-of-Life Talk
This is the conversation that all of these talks have been slowly circling like a lazy shark playing with its food. Facing mortality, both your own and that of a loved one, can feel unpleasant on a good day and downright terrifying the rest of the time. What’s even scarier though, is being put into a situation where you need to make an actual life-or-death decision for a loved one and you have no idea what they would want—from being kept alive by artificial means to the type of funeral/burial they desire. This is why we have living wills. This is also why we have these near unbearable, emotionally-draining talks; because one painful conversation now will hurt a lot less than an uninformed decision in the future.
7. The Unfulfilled Dreams Talk
Don’t let the title fool you; this might actually be the most pleasant of all of these talks. Not every conversation has to have an air of doom and gloom about it. Is there some late-in-life dream your loved ones still want to achieve but need a kick in the pants or a helping hand to make come true? Maybe it’s a trip they never got to take or hobby that passed them by. Whatever it is, now is the time to make those still reachable dreams a reality. It will bring you and your loved ones closer together and, in a sneaky way, it will allow you to have all of these conversations while you’re spending time planning something fun.
Hopefully, through all of these trying conversations, the respect, dignity, and care you show in your words, your actions, and your intentions are felt by your loved ones and seen by your own children. Remember, these talks are an investment in your future as well. Don’t put them off.
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