The holidays offer an opportunity for many of us to reunite with family we might not see often, making it the perfect time to connect around creating a long-term plan for your aging loved ones. It is important to talk about these critical issues sooner rather than later.
After being a caregiver to both my aging mother and my brother who was suffering from complications due to Type II Diabetes, I got a call one day that my brother Jeff had died at the age of 56. My mom and brother lived together, always wanting to stay in California, while I was raising a family with young children back in New York. While I was managing their day-to-day needs from afar, we never had a conversation about long-term care or what to do if one of them passed away.
I knew that my mom was showing signs of aging and dementia, and with the crushing life trauma of losing her son and housemate, her condition suddenly became worse and she was unable to cope with even the simplest of daily tasks. It became quickly evident that she needed more care than I was able to give her. I was left with so many questions and so few answers. If only I had talked to them about their health and their affairs while they were healthy enough to be able to provide me the information, I could have had a better plan in place. The day trauma happens is not the day you want to figure all of these things out.
I sifted through thousands of papers trying to find Social Security cards, Medicare cards, bank accounts, insurance policies, etc. It took months to track down the details of her life and health, all while trying to comfort her and get her settled into a new living environment. I had always thought that I had everything under control with my mom and brother, but boy was I mistaken. I vowed to use my experience to help others be more prepared for this difficult time.
Having these conversations as a family and coming together on critical matters will lead to better outcomes for the aging relatives you care about. If you’re worried that you might start a family feud or spoil the holiday cheer by starting a serious conversation, don’t be.
Here are five ways to successfully navigate these critical discussions with your family:
- Be intentional about timing
This conversation deserves your undivided attention. Find a time when you will be free of other commitments or interruptions. With my own family, I found that sitting around the holiday dinner table is not the right time – there is too much going on with food, friends, playing hostess and kids running around to give the attention that is needed. Instead, look for a calm moment when the commotion slows down. This can introduce the perfect opportunity to talk with your loved ones about these subjects.
- Explain your Feelings, Observations and Concerns
Your loved ones want to know that you care, so share the reasons why you’re concerned. Whether you’ve noticed that your parents are struggling with housekeeping, or their mobility isn’t what it used to be, or they’ve undergone some other change that has you worried, it’s important to relay your feelings to them. Avoid being critical or judgmental – let them know you love them and you’re there to support them.
- Be Their Advocate
You should make it very clear that you want to fulfill your loved one’s wishes over your own or anybody else’s. Tell them they can depend on you for support and that you need their input to make the right decisions that will help to maintain their desired way of life.
- Respect their Wishes and Concerns
You may initiate the conversation, but try not to dominate it. Listen to the issues your loved one has, give them validation and talk about how you can find appropriate solutions based on their needs and goals. Once I understood the list of apprehensions my mother had, it helped me address her concerns. This list became a great tool for me as I searched for the best solutions for her. The information that your loved one gives you is crucial in understanding and planning for the type of lifestyle they want, and will lead to positive outcomes for everyone.
- Create a Plan Together
End the conversation with a plan to move forward and confirm that everyone involved fully comprehends that plan. Utilize each family member’s strengths and resources appropriately. Maybe one sibling doesn’t have the financial resources but has the time to check-in daily or lives close to mom and dad and can take them to doctor’s appointments. It helps to identify and vocalize these individual strengths so that everyone has clear expectations of one another. This is especially important if, for some reason, an emergency leaves your loved one in critical condition or unable to make decisions on their own.
For many of us, these conversations are intimidating, especially with our parents. I’ve always looked to my mother for advice, guidance and support. It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that it was time for us to switch roles – time for me to provide her the care and support she’d always given me. Then, I thought about all the tough conversations she’d had with me throughout my life – as a child, as a teenager, as a grown woman. During these times, her love and respect for me guided the conversation and I knew she had my best interests at heart. I tried to do the same when it was time for me to have this important talk with her.
For help in initiating these conversations, A Place for Mom – the nation’s largest senior living referral service – has put together a thoughtful Holiday Conversations Guide for you and your family. With a team of experts, they break down the important topics you’ll want to cover, including: finances, legal questions, dealing with family and issues around medicine and memory loss.