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Starting the Dialogue Early with your Aging Parents

April 1, 2013

Yesterday we celebrated Easter. Here in the US many families gathered together to worship and then share food, fun, and laughter. Hopefully it was a banner day for conversations with aging parents or grandparents. Did you learn anything new during your family gathering?

  • Maybe you heard an often told story and it took on a different meaning for you this time.
  • Perhaps you learned your mom’s middle name for the first time.
  • Possibly you were given a glimpse into your parent’s courtship and early marriage.

When i was a child we had many family gatherings. The men went downstairs into my father’s den and smoked, maybe had a glass of scotch, and talked politics and finance. Women were relegated to the kitchen preparing food or cleaning up after the meal was over. Children ran in and out played hard and sometimes had dramatic little fights over a toy or comment made. Ahhhh…. FAMILY!

What did you talk about?

  • The upcoming baseball season?
  • A new recipe?
  • Politics?
  • A new job you are hoping to get?

If you are a regular reader of this blog I hope you took the opportunity to ask some questions about your parents and their wishes for the challenges they face as they age and possibly even some of their end-of-life plans.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it. These discussions are important. They aren’t hard if handled with advance planning and a bit of humor, but they are vital to easing a wall of crashing chaos that can occur with no advance warning. I don’t want you to take every holiday and make it a huge discussion about the issues of health care and dying. Rather, I’d hope that you can integrate a few questions and build trust over many years then schedule the heavy duty conversations with your parents or aging family members for non-holiday gatherings.

A few days ago a friend told me he was getting together with his parents for the first time in over a year. We had previously discussed their situation and his concern over their health issues that have become more prevalent as they’ve moved into their late sixties. I asked if he was going to explore any questions with them? His response was classic, “Oh no, I don’t have any plans for that. It will just upset them and ruin the day for everyone.”

After hearing that answer I recognized that this is the root of the entire problem. It’s really the basis for why I write this blog and am working on putting together a book on the subject. This topic literally scares people and so they put off the important discussions.

Let’s go back to the basics.

Talking about future plans is not interfering with our parents lives. It’s a way to assist them in planning for changes in their lives and also to help them plan for unexpected events so that fear, panic, and chaos don’t rein. Most of our parents are savvy enough to know they need to have a financial plan. Some purchase funeral plans in advance and spend time each year looking at insurance options as a supplement to their Medicare coverage. But that’s often where they stop thinking and planning.

My goal is to assist you, as their aging children, and your parents in the practice of loving, trusting and open discussions about their wishes surrounding housing options, health care choices, assisted care options, financial obligations and estate planning, and end-of-life planning.  These discussions happen over time and each family experiences them differently. There are however some basics involved. Let’s take a look at them.

  • Easy dialogue. Can you talk with each other easily about topics other than the issues of health care and end-of-life choices? If not, you need to start out just chatting about every day topics.
  • Is there mutual trust and ease between the generations?
  • Do you have shared value systems? This is not a deal breaker. If value systems aren’t shared then an attitude of acceptance and tolerance needs to be developed on both sides: yours and your parents.
  • What kind of communication style do you have with your parents? Is it open and easy or is there a history of argument, debate, or one-sided listening?

Once you’ve identified the answers to the four questions above you can start to develop a strategy to overcome these barriers.  How do you get to a point where the discussions flow with ease?

  • Start out by having more frequent communication on every-day topics. Spend time together over coffee, a meal at their home or your, frequent nights out for a leisurely supper or picnic.
  • Offer to spend time involved in every-day activities. Go with dad to get the car washed, accompany mom on a grocery trip or a trip to the mall, offer to mow the lawn, help mom with the spring cleaning or any other activity where you can just be engaged with each other without deep conversation.
  • Building trust takes time so go slow. If they ask for your assistance be there for them even if it’s inconvenient for you. (Driving carpool for your soccer games or cheerleading tryouts wasn’t always convenient for them either.) Show that you are willing to make their requests a priority in your life and that you cognizant of their need for increasing assistance.
  • Ask benign questions such as what’s your favorite food, color, flower, holiday. Then remember their answers. Keep a notebook if you need to and write down their responses. You’d be surprised how much joy it brings to your parents when you remember these little details. A bouquet of yellow daffodils for mom on Easter because you know that’s her favorite flower, or a box of macadamia nuts for dad on his birthday because he mentioned how much he loved them when he was stationed in Hawaii. I’m sure you get the drift.

From this foundation of caring, listening, and sharing (don’t forget to share some of your stories in the process) stronger ties are built and it’s much easier to build up to the more serious discussions about the issues mentioned above that are associated with aging and end-of-life planning.


Please share your stories and experiences in building a solid relationship with your aging parents. Do you have certain approaches or a special story to share? I’d love to read it!

Thanks for reading my blog. I hope you’ll come back often and share in the comments.

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