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Starting the Conversation; What every child should know before talking to their parent(s)

Written by Susan Lewin, LICSW,CMC,FCM, Principal, Generations, All About Elders, a geriatric care management company in Brookline, MA since 1995.

The bumper sticker reads, “Be nice to your children; they’ll pick your nursing home.” Not so funny to elders or caregivers. But when you do notice that your parents or loved ones need more help than you ever imagined, you need to know how to start that conversation.

There is a long list of red flags that can tip you off when the time has come for that conversation. A few of them are as follows: a gradual or sudden change in mood or behavior; a decline in health or increased trips to the doctor or emergency room; not enough food or rotting food in the house; change in personal appearance or increased confusion.

If you’re a child and you have siblings, call a family meeting.  You should also include your parent’s siblings, if they’re involved, or their closest friend, if possible.  Have an agenda, appoint a moderator and take notes. Here’s where the local child usually gets what seems like added tasks, but you can assign other responsibility to out-of-town siblings. Ask questions and find out if and what others may be concerned about. This may surprise you.

After the meeting, pick a spokesperson, no more than 2, so your parents don’t feel intimidated by more than two people approaching them.  Explain that it is your responsibility as an adult child to see that they are safe and healthy.    Be firm and respectful. Explain that you’re being realistic while being loving and practical, trying to avoid a crisis.     

Sometimes it takes a professional or a third party, such as a trusted friend, attorney, or accountant to broach the subject along with you.   Or you may want to mention that you read an article or heard a speaker or program on the subject. This oftentimes helps.

Talk about your own feelings; use statements such as “I wish”, I feel”, “I’m worried”.  Look for body language and facial expressions; are you hearing your parents?  Are you reading them correctly?  In addition to you talking, ask them to share their own feelings with you.  Many elders feel a great loss of independence, worried about declining health, and even the emotional changes they are experiencing may be on their mind.   Maybe they don’t want to be a burden to their children or care giver.  Be a good listener and be patient;   do your best to interpret what they’re saying (and not saying) but allow for negativity from them.  And don’t be surprised if they actually welcome the help.

Take small steps.  Don’t overwhelm them with too much action or information at once.   Tackle one or two issues, such as help in the house, gathering their important documents, or help with straightening out the bills along with them.   Allow the elder to participate in the solutions to whatever is going on that causes concern.

Once they accept your help, do your homework. Know your resources, like local senior services for meals on wheels, senior centers for activities, transportation options, pharmacy delivery, just to name a few. With permission, get to know their doctors. Start a notebook or file with vital information, such as social security, Medicare, and secondary insurance numbers, bank accounts, legal documents, financial investments, assets, income, expenses, neighbor’s names and phone numbers.  And if there are no POA or health care proxies, get this done as soon as you can.  Many parents name each other as representatives in both health and legal situations.  Try to convince your parents to also name a child or trusted sibling or professional in addition to their spouse. 

You can also get expert advice from a professional Aging Life Care Experts who can guide you through what can be a complicated system. An ALCA is a professional with the experience to save you time and provide you with information, recommendations as well as ongoing advocacy, especially if you live out of their area, and to provide you with peace of mind. They are privately paid, but also cost efficient when you think of the decreased stress and anxiety, and time away from work or your own family, while at the same time providing a valuable service to the extended family.  Find an ALCA at www.caremanager.org