Starting Uncomfortable Conversations with Elderly Parents

Boomer Boot Camp #3

Having difficult conversaions with aging parentsIn today’s blog about getting your “Ducks in a Row” I want to address how to start uncomfortable conversations with elderly parents. This will not be easy, but it could help prevent your family members from having emotional meltdowns in hospital corridors over issues like tube feeding and life support and nasty battles over the distribution of money and property when a parent dies.

If you think your parents are vulnerable now or may be at some point in the future, it will be a lot less stressful for you, for your siblings and anyone else who cares about your parents if you can find out how they would want their healthcare, finances and possessions managed if something happened to them and they could no longer care for themselves.

Starting these conversations can be uncomfortable because you will need to have discussions about their money, their property, their home, and the eventual loss of their independence. These are areas where none of us are willing to surrender our control a minute before we have to.

You need to be aware that your parents may not want to talk about their money, eventual incapacity or death, but regardless of how awkward it is, these are conversations you must have – and the sooner the better.

Three Steps to Managing Uncomfortable Conversations:

1. State the Issue: You can start by saying something like, “Mom, Dad, I am concerned that there may come a time when you will need my help managing your affairs. It would make me feel a lot more comfortable if I knew what you would want me to do if you were suddenly in a position where you could no longer care for yourself.”

2. Ask for Permission: When you need to have a potentially sensitive conversation, ask for permission to have it before you start. For instance, you could say something like, “Mom, I would like to set a time for us to sit down and talk about how you are going to keep up the house and yard now that you are spending so much of your time taking care of Dad,” and then you say, “Would that be alright with you?”

Or it could be something like, “Dad, I need to have a difficult conversation with you. I have become very concerned about Mom’s ability to drive, and I’d like to discuss some of the different transportation options you two could consider. Would it be okay with you if we scheduled a time to talk about this?”

3. Ask open-ended questions: Open-ended questions cannot be answered with just a “yes” or “no”. Good openers start with questions like:

How would you feel about ________?
Who could help us with ____________?
What would you like to do about ________?

How would you feel about setting an appointment with someone who could help us locate and organize all of your legal documents?
Your new place is not going to have as much room as you have right now. Who could help us decide what to do with the things you don’t want to take with you?

It is so important to take all of your medications as prescribed. There are some wonderful services that can help keep track of what you are supposed to be taking and when. I’d like to set aside a time when we could review some of the different options. Would that be okay with you? When do you think we could do that?

As much as all of us kids would want would to do what you wanted if something happened and you could no longer manager your healthcare or finances, it’s very likely that some of us could have very different opinions about what your wishes are.
I know keeping peace in the family is important to you, so I’d like to know if we could set a time to talk about what would you like to do about getting this information organized and how and when you’d like to share it with all of the kids. Would that be okay with you? When do you think we could do that?

The key is to let them keep as much independence and decision making control as possible. No one likes to be told what to do. None of us like to give up our power. Do not give orders, and avoid telling them what to do. If they are doing something that concerns you, don’t make accusations. State the fact. Ask for permission to have the discussion. Set a time to deal with it.

Bear in mind that your parents may not want to tell you everything. They may be afraid that they don’t have enough assets to carry them through an extended stay in a long-term care facility. They may not want to tell you if they have made some bad investments or poor financial decisions like loaning money to your siblings who haven’t repaid their debts.

Conversely, if your parents have a lot of money, they may be afraid that some of their children could become less ambitious about providing for their own futures if they know they stand to inherit a significant sum of money. So you see, they may have lots of reasons for keeping their financial cards close to the chest.

Whatever their situation is, they may be more comfortable talking with a professional than they are talking with you. In the next installment of getting your “Ducks in a Row”, we’ll talk about resources that can help keep your parents safe and living in their own home as long as possible.