It’s the conversation no one enjoys having—discussing care needs and wishes with aging parents: What to do in case one loses the ability to drive or take care of basic needs, how the cost of care will be covered, when to sell the house, and even their preferences regarding end of life and funeral arrangements. With some advance planning and cooperation between family members, you can take steps to ensure that your parents get first-rate care and remain as healthy as possible, for as long as possible.
Though it’s something many people put off, it’s important to have a candid family discussion about your aging parents’ wishes when it comes to their medical care, financial matters, and legal decisions. Starting the conversation early, while your parents are in good health and able to make decisions for themselves, can make the process less stressful. It’s easier to talk about difficult topics when they are hypothetical “what-ifs,” rather than when they are crisis-driven.
Here are four suggestions to help overcome any resistance your parents might have to discussing these potentially touchy subjects.
“The best thing to do is to start the conversation early and start small,” says Judy Santamaria, MSPH and expert in family caregiving. It’s often not one big talk but many conversations over time that will resolve these matters.
“There are many things elders care about—independence, health, finances, relationships, and security. You will not be able to cover all those topics at once. Instead, bring up things as they arise, such as asking, ‘I noticed that something in particular is getting harder for you,’ and go from there.” And check in again if the situation changes and you notice decline or need in a particular area.
As you step in to help your aging parents, be sure to tune into changes in their physical and emotional health and their ability to take care of their own needs.
It may be very tempting for adult children to take over the role of parent and, in essence, simply tell their parents what they believe is the best course of action. However, unless a parent’s health and safety are at issue, his or her wishes must be respected.
“Ideally, your parents will take some of your advice, but these are their decisions and they are in control of their own lives. You can’t impose your will on them, but you can have open conversations where you are not judging,” says Santamaria.
If your parents don’t know much about certain medical, financial, or legal options that are available to them, offer to help them research information. After they’ve reviewed it (or you’ve done so together), talk with them again about these issues—but still allow them to make the decision. The key is to keep the communication lines open and to re-evaluate your aging parents’ needs and options as they change.
“Siblings, friends, family members, and healthcare professionals like a family physician can really help to bring balance when discussing these difficult topics,” says Santamaria. But, of course, try to be sure that everyone is on the same page to avoid any unnecessary discord.
Make sure your parents know that your primary motivation is to help them. Rather than focus on what they won’t be able to do someday, “explain that it would give you peace of mind to know that they will be taken care of, especially in terms of maintaining independence, managing their health needs, and making sure they have money to lead the life they want,” says Santamaria. “Convey your concerns and then listen to what they have to say.”
Ultimately, the most helpful things you can do is reassure your parents that you’ll be there for them, offering love and assistance every step of the way.