Your parents taught you to talk by talking to you. Now that you are the one caring for your aging parents, you need to talk to them to maintain open lines of communication.
There may be topics you and your parents would rather avoid, such as giving up driving, a safer and more convenient place to live, or money and health care issues. But it is important to have those difficult conversations when appropriate.
Earlier this year, Fidelity Investments released the results of its third Family & Finance survey, which said these conversations are not just difficult – they’re not happening.
Fidelity asked several sets of parents and adult children about plans for estate execution, financial management and caregiving as the parents age, and what role their children would play. The parents’ and children’s views varied widely. For example, although 92 percent of parents expect one of their children to be the executor of their estate, when asked, more than one in four (27 percent) of the adult children identified as filling the role had no idea this would be expected of them.
The underlying problem is that there is not adequate communication. That is partly because many families have never gotten around to talking about these and other important topics. It is also because parents and children often do not agree when it is appropriate to talk about them.
Well, the time is now! In the Fidelity study, one-third of parents and their children said frank conversations should occur after retirement and when health and finances have become an issue. But that may be too late, Fidelity says.
Jeannie Locy, president of Right at Home, an in-home companion and personal care provider in Louisville, Ky., and South Central Indiana, agrees. “Caring for parents or other seniors can be exhausting and emotions can flare, so one of the most valuable things any family can do for an aging loved one is to start talking about ‘someday’ care issues before they need to be implemented,” she says in an article about family discussions on caring for aging relatives.
Perhaps you’ve attempted to discuss some of these issues with your parent or parents, and it didn’t go well. You should not be discouraged, and you should not feel alone.
The fact that you were greeted with anything from resistance to delay to downright stubbornness should tell you that your family dynamic is not unusual. But maybe you can change that.
A Penn State study cited by Science Daily says adult children link perceptions of parent stubbornness with how they see their relationships with their parents. But parents link their perceptions to who they are as people. If parents see themselves as more neurotic or less agreeable, they report more stubbornness. Because adult children and aging parents may view what these behaviors represent differently, this may adversely affect how they relate to one another or support one another.
David Solie, an author who specializes in geriatric issues, says older adults may be struggling with issues of control and their personal legacy when they seem to avoid the issue in difficult conversations.
An article about Solie’s and others’ geriatric research and writing suggests some scenarios in which more is going on in how a senior deals with unsettling topics.
As you discuss moving to a different home with your father and he insists on telling stories of how he and your mother found the house, he is “engaged in the life review process as part of understanding his legacy. As he contemplates leaving this house for good, he’s looking back on all this house has meant to him.”
Your mother who complains regularly about not being able to see well but refuses all efforts for a vision checkup, is trying to avoid yet another restriction on her lifestyle and loss of independence. Perhaps she’s already given up certain activities because of her health and physical limitations, and seen friends become less active or pass away.
Solie, Fidelity Investments, Right at Home, and Angie’s List, offer some tips for productive conversations between adult children and their aging parents, which we’ve adapted here and added to from our own experience working with families with elderly members: