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How to initiate discussions about the future with aging relatives

How to initiate discussions about the future with aging relatives


We all have relatives that are aging.

We are aging ourselves! How does our society usually respond to aging? By avoiding it! Why is that?

Most avoid discussions about aging because getting older can be scary. We don’t know what the future holds and we may wonder who will care for us and if we get sick, disabled, or lose our minds. We do what we can to avoid, prevent, prolong, and hide any signs of aging. Unfortunately, we will age and we are missing the opportunities to design our aging journey as a family team which aides in minimizing crises and improving the care and support we can give to our aging relatives.

So how can you Age by Design™? Talk. Yes, just talk to your aging relatives and begin conversations about aging. Sounds easy in theory but I recognize it is difficult to execute. Breathe easy and take your time with this. You are not in a race and you don’t need to panic and make hasty decisions that can affect you and your family long term.

In fact, when you have a bit more time with your families, try to get to know your aging relatives in a different way than in the past. This knowledge will help you build meaningful connections and provide you with insight into how they view aging as an individual, as a couple, as a family and as a society as a whole.

Today is the start of a conversation journey.

Follow these 4 steps to ease you gently into learning about your relative and initiate discussions about the future.

Step 1
Begin getting to know who your aging relatives are by understanding how their experiences contributed to their view of life and relationships. Begin with asking questions unrelated to aging but that offer insight into their lives such as:

1. What was school like for you when you were younger?
2. When did you move out of your childhood home? How hard/easy was that transition? What kind of support did you (or did you not) get from your parents?
3. Tell me about your parents. Were you close to them? What kinds of memories do you have of spending time with them?
4. Tell me about your grandparents. Were you close to them? Were your parents close to their parents? Did they see them often?
5. What has it been like to be a parent? What is it like to watch me as an adult? Share something that you have learned from your parents and then ask them if they have learned anything from you.
6. When you were living at home with your parents, did you understand the nature of their responsibilities? Did they discuss work stress? Financial matters? Were they private about their personal lives or their life as a couple? Did they maintain clear boundaries as to “adult” and “child” topics?

Step 2
Introduce questions related to health care and decisions that connect with them as a caregiver, not as the care recipient. This offers insight into their challenges and rewards of assisting an aging relative but does not force them to look directly at their own aging journey.

1. Do you remember if your parents had any health problems? How old were you? Did they share the details? Was it private? How did you react to or feel about this approach?
2. Were your parents ever sick? Did they ever need help? How did you manage?
3. Were your parents ever hospitalized? Moved to institutional care? What happened and how were you implicated?
4. Did they have (leave) financial problems or decisions? How did you manage that?
5. How did you and your siblings cooperate on the behalf of your parents when they needed help?

Step 3
Now use some external examples by using relevant/personal details to obtain your parents’ views of what happened in specific situations.

1. Remember when our neighbour “Mr. Smith” was hospitalized and his daughter had to come into town from Dallas to help him? Do you know how this worked out? Did he have a Power of Attorney so his daughter could handle his payments? Since he had difficulty making decisions due to his stroke, do you know who did that for him? Who decided he would sell his home? Who found the facility for him?
2. Did you see the episode on The Doctors that discussed caregiving? Were you ever a caregiver for someone? What was the experience like?
3. Have you seen the movie The Notebook (or any movie related to aging and family)? What did you think?
4. Did you read that article in the New York Times about that woman who was financially abused by her paid caregiver? What do you think about the role her family did (or did not) play in that?

Step 4
Finally, introduce different topics of aging to understand how your aging relative feels about specific aspects of aging. Use the Caregiver Worksheets at www.ericksonresource.com/toolkits for a full list of topics and a discussion guide. Make sure you cover the following:

1. Legal documents (Power of attorney, health care surrogate, living will, etc.)
2. Housing preferences (bringing care into the home, assisted living, full care facility)
3. Memory loss
4. Sibling disagreements (create a family plan to minimize)
5. Spiritual and emotional care and support for the family
6. Financial and property management – using funds for care, caregiver support, housing, etc.
7. Medical diagnoses, medication, health care professionals – document and organize information
8. Communication and advocacy – What are the expectations? Are the appropriate legal forms signed to promote family involvement?
9. General fears and concerns about aging from the care recipient and caregiver viewpoints
10. General values about treatment when in palliative situations

If your aging relatives are resistant to these conversations you can say things such as:

1. “Mom, I have so much respect and love for you. I want to do everything I can to support you in the way YOU want to be supported…not what I think you want.”
2. “Mom, you know that my sister and I don’t agree on everything and I don’t want this to cause any stress for you in your later years should you need help and need us to work effectively together.”
3. “Dad, you have avoided talking about getting older and I know it’s scary. Please take some time to tell me about your fears, concerns, expectations so that I can do what you want me to do. I don’t want to guess and make the wrong decision.”
4. “I know you never want me to feel stress or worry. Me neither. There is a way to avoid this. Talk to me about what you expect of me so that if you need help, I don’t waste my energy on worrying about which decisions I should make and I can focus on supporting you and not doubting myself.”

Don’t put pressure on yourself or your aging relatives that this will go perfectly the first time out of the gate. Patience, love and listening will bring results. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

About the author

Stephanie Erickson

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