Starting "The Conversation with Our Parents"

For most of us, our parents have been actively involved in our lives, providing wisdom and support when we requested it. They have provided a unique and loving perspective during the challenging times as well as the wonderful opportunities presented throughout our life. There have been many times when their advice played an important role in decision making and it was always good to have their blessing. When it became time to return the favor, it wasn’t something either of us wanted. Even though some things may be better left unsaid, talking about aging is not one of those things. The timing of this conversation needs to be ongoing otherwise we will put it off until it’s too late. Many of us find that our parents are no longer competent, and we have failed to be there when they needed us. Denying that a major transition is occurring in our parents won’t prevent it. Our denial may actually exacerbate the pain and suffering that we create for both ourselves and our parents. That’s why Bender Terrace is an available support system for you and your older adult parents. We will help you begin a dialogue today, giving you guidance as your family plans for life’s natural transitions into old age. Bender Terrace supports you as you seek to find acceptable solutions for everyone. When you allow us to guide you along this difficult path, you will set the stage for your parent’s aging process to be enjoyable, respectful and satisfying.

The Gift of Conversation
One way to begin the conversation is to ask them how they imagine living out the rest of their lives. Ask them about where they hope to live and what conditions they consider a requirement for them to be able to fulfill their wishes. Ask them how they will know when it is time to have the “I need help” talk. Ask them about their thoughts and fears about getting older, needing help, or planning to move to a retirement community. It is much easier to begin this ongoing conversation when they are healthy rather than in the middle of a health crisis. It’s easy to understand how we have amplified this problem by denying our own aging process. Who wants to imagine themselves needing help with walking, standing or sitting much less with bathing or eating? By intentionally involving your parents in designing their last years you can respectfully approach their aging, and the conversation will likely be less stressful and more productive.

Regrettably, most of us tend to postpone and ignore these important conversations. It’s obvious that both of us have been thinking about these topics; however, nothing is spoken.
To overcome this problem:

  1. Sit down with your parents with the intention of discussing their future and the issues they consider important.
  2. Discuss the options and possible solutions.
  3. Select a mutually agreeable strategy for their future.
  4. Repeat as necessary.

It is important for your parents to know they will be respected and cared for as they age. These meetings will also comfort you as you understand your parent’s wishes and values.

Both studies and experience indicate that very few families have these types of conversations before a parent is hospitalized. We may began to notice signs during a visit and hope what we’re seeing is temporary. However, by paying attention and being truthful with ourselves, it becomes obvious that they are struggling with normal daily activities. Keep in mind; it is important to discuss their difficulties before their struggles become a crisis, remember to keep the discussion low-keyed and respectful. As you open a discussion about their struggles, allow them to feel your concern for their safety and your love.

Helping your parents to create a vision of their future is necessary for their well-being, and it will provide a positive impact on your emotional well-being.

Parents Plan for the Future
Everyone is living longer. The results are that many of our parents are living with lengthy illnesses, decreased functional abilities and the typical impairments of hearing and eyesight that come with advanced age. Everyone with an aging parent is obliged to have “The Conversation”, discussing the possibility of them needing some type of help and to listen to their thoughts and plans for their future care.

It is likely that your parents are already confronting the issues of aging; after all, it is their bodies that are wrinkling, slowing down, turning gray and deteriorating. They, their friends, and their siblings have all experienced a multitude of health challenges, requiring a change to their lifestyles and living arrangements. Because they helped their parents through this same situation, they are not strangers to the subject of what happens as they age. The standard used by some organizations is the “70-40 Rule.” Basically, the rule is when your parent is 70 or older, and you are 40 or older; it is time to begin having conversations about aging and their future. If you begin early it will be easy to look forward to these talks with your parents and use them as an opportunity to get to know them better.

Starting the conversation is a magnificent gift you can give your parents and your entire family. It is one way to honor your parents, and the conversation will help them look forward to what comes next in their lives. Plan your conversations ensuring that they will be both encouraging and as productive possible. Make a list of the topics you want to discuss. Rewrite your list as open-ended questions. Your plan will help guide the conversation and help you keep track of the important questions as well as your parent’s answers.

If a crisis occurs before anyone has discussed the subject of what your parents want, it will be exceptionally difficult to make the decisions which respected your parent’s wishes under such duress. By planning now and including your parents everyone will know their future hopes, and avoid the headaches and heartache which are typical. It is useful to review a few important ideas before you schedule your conversation. Preparation and respect will create a naturally supportive approach, laying the foundations for a successful and appropriate series of solutions.

Preparing for the conversation
Even though we’ve been discussing “The Conversation” try not to approach this important opportunity as the once-in-a-lifetime “Conversation,” but think of it as a series of conversations. It is important to discuss one question at a time as it may not be possible to resolve some topics in a single conversation. It is a mistake to try to resolve everything in a single meeting. By starting with an easy topic you are more likely to create anticipation rather than anxiety for the next conversation. You are beginning a continuing, honest conversation about everything associated with your parent’s future life and their end of life.

It’s not important to answer all the questions during your first few talks. Actually, you don’t need even a single answer during the initial talk. The critical thing of the first talk is to lay the ground work for future talks while seeking to understand your parent’s dreams, feelings, desires and needs. Even though you may want information or decisions, and you may hope to be able to share both your opinions and information this will happen over time. Taking time is not a problem if you start early, and it is even more critical to take plenty of time if you start late. Patience is its own reward. If you’ve waited too long, you will have to schedule more frequent times to talk. Because your parents may take some time to adjust to the thoughts of your being equal with them, their answers will come in due time. This means that there is no need to pressure them just so you can get a timely answer to your important questions. Additionally, just because you think it is critical to get an answer now, it does not mean they agree.

It is important to be a “partner” rather than to act like a parent. This is because a parent is in command, makes rules and sets the agenda. A parent may not consider negotiation as a necessity. It is also important not to act like a child. If you choose the role of a “partner” it will be obvious that you have a shared interest and a shared goal. The common mindset that a role reversal takes place in your relationship with your parents is neither accurate nor useful. Your parents will likely make it very clear that they are not interested in being parented by their children. An appropriate shift in your relationship will likely occur as you use questions to guide these conversations. You will be much more effective in each conversation if you do not consider yourself an expert, and more importantly eliminate the attitude that you “know what is best” for your parents.

It is important to start these conversations while your parents are vigorous. Beginning before there are concerns will provide both of you the time to build slowly and have many discussions about the significant areas of their lives and health without the fear or pressure caused by a crisis. Begin your discussions by creating an outline of points you consider to be important. If your parents are able and willing, have them create a series of questions they would like to answer. If you did not write your important issues as questions, rewrite them as easy open-ended questions. More questions that are less complicated lead to the best discussions.

What to consider when scheduling conversations
You’ll want to arrange your conversations with care and be positive your parents have time to talk, and you’re ready to listen attentively. Make certain that everyone is comfortable and not distracted by issues of time or commitments. Never start this type of conversation if you need to walk out the door in the next 30 minutes.

As you well know, having a respectful discussion requires that both of you make an investment of time and patience. Plus it is important for you to create a safe space for your parents. In other words, a holiday meal is not a good place to discuss delicate issues. A neutral site can help put everyone at ease and often it is easier if you meet at a quiet restaurant to talk about their house or where they want to live in the future. A discussion about leaving one’s home while sitting in one’s home tends to create anxiety. Other family members or friends may help to create a “safe space.” It is good to invite a sibling, family member or friend who makes your parent feel comfortable and relaxed.

Things to consider when beginning the discussion:

  • What is your motivation for having these conversations? Who will benefit from these conversations? Will the experience feel manipulative to your parents? Are you prepared to explain your fears and concerns? What is stopping you from beginning this discussion? How will you overcome your barriers? What is the best thing you can imagine happening? What do you want to happen?
  • Discuss with all your family members who are going to be involved in the discussion and asked them how and when they want to have the conversation with your parents. This is important, even if they are not present. Knowing that your family members support the process and are caring for your parents as they engage the aging process is very useful.
  • By being both sensitive and caring you will make it easier for your parents to tell you their concerns, fears and wishes. Ask them how they are doing compared to five years ago and one year ago. Ask them if they’re still able to do the things they want as well as the things they enjoy doing. Let them know you care about their emotional, mental and physical health. Ask them how they think and feel about aging and what they want the rest of their lives to be like.
  • Be prepared to remain silent as they gather their thoughts. Sometimes we are afraid to hear what our parents are feeling because it also makes us face our aging. Let them talk and let them know you hear them by waiting until they have finished and repeating back to them what you’ve understood. Be open to asking questions and listening to their complete answer. Most of the time; unless it is requested it’s best not to offer an opinion, and never give unrequested advice. By listening you show respect, which is most important for successful results.
  • A very effective way to start a conversation is to ask for help: “Dad, I’m reviewing several long-term care insurance policies – what have you learned about them?” or, “Mom, I’ve been learning about planning for later years, and I am considering revising my will and making certain my legal documents are in order. Do you have any suggestions that will make this easier?”

Beginning the discussion
It is much easier to begin this process before there is a need for a hospital stay. It’s best to keep it simple, began low-key by addressing a single issue at a time and listening to their options and choices. Ask open-ended questions, allow for silence, listen and ask your parents to describe their thoughts, concerns and feelings.

This way, you will honor your parents, preserve their self-respect and enable them to move forward to the next phase of their lives feeling organized and positive.

If you are feeling uneasy or concerned about starting this discussion with your parents, find someone who has already successfully navigated this process and asked them for help. In addition, you can ask other family members or a professional for suggestions. For many fearful parents, it’s good to consider getting a neutral party involved.
Useful Professionals such as:

  • Pastor
  • Friend
  • Physicians
  • Case manager
  • Social worker
  • Lawyer
  • Financial adviser
  • Geriatric care manager
  • Representative from a local senior center or retirement community

They are experts and the compassionate understanding they offer can be priceless in having "the conversation" and finding the best solutions for everyone.





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