Difficult Conversations: 6 Tips for Talking to Your Parents About Health and the Future
As your loved one ages, it can create the need for sensitive – and sometimes difficult –
conversations. No one likes to spend time discussing a future where they might not be able to take care of themselves completely independently, but as a potential caregiver, it is imperative that you are aware of your loved one’s health history and views on potential future health care needs. The worst-case scenario is an unexpected emergency where you need answers and your loved one is unable to give them.
You may eventually become your parent’s number one advocate, and it’s important to arm yourself with the knowledge that can give them their best life. Here are 6 tips on talking to your parents about their care.
1. Talk early and often.
Your parents may be in excellent and vibrant health now, which is wonderful. Don’t wait until a health emergency to start your conversations. Look for potential conversation starters in everyday life that can lead into your own discussion, such as an article in the newspaper or a friend’s illness. Once you begin the dialogue, perhaps set aside some time when you both can be mentally prepared to focus on a checklist of questions (see step 2). Avoid already-busy times like holidays, where stress levels can be high, and be sure to check back in on the information as needed, especially if you notice any differences in your parents’ conditions.
2. Start with the basics.
A good way to remove some of the stress from your conversation is to come prepared with a checklist from an outside source. This list could include questions about your parents’ health history, views on future health care, finances, and legal documents. You can add your own questions, including even the small details like care for your parents’ pets. Don’t assume that your views on how things should be handled are naturally in-line with your parents’, and do your best to listen with an open mind and avoid criticism of their views. It’s best to offer options rather than opinions, and you may at times have to agree to disagree. Depending on how much you need to cover, it might be good to break up the information gathering into a few sessions.
3. Involve the family.
These discussions, however awkward at times, can actually be a great chance to show a united front and a dedication to care for your parents from the whole family. Keep family dynamics in mind to reduce the amount of stress involved, but know that the additional support from siblings and other appropriate family members can be invaluable in future situations. Also having additional family members attend these conversations can help ensure that everyone hears directly from your parents, so there is no room for argument at a later time.
4. Be clear on the goal of your conversation.
It’s important to set the stage with your parents before having these conversations, and then to reiterate as you begin to talk. Reassure them that your ultimate goal is to always do what’s best for them, and that goal drives the need to bring up sensitive topics. Align with any other family members before the meeting to ensure that opinions they might share won’t undermine what you are trying to accomplish. Try to put yourself in your parents’ shoes, and consider some of the emotions they might have to deal with, from fear of an unknown future to the realities of an aging mind and body. Take this chance to reassure them that you are there to support them and help them navigate any decisions that are to come.
5. Speak with respect.
Despite getting older, our loved ones still need to feel control over their lives. While it is necessary to balance their independence with their safety, try your best to treat them with the respect they earned during such a long life. The golden years in life can be a rewarding time, but can also be a time of loss (losing friends, physical abilities, and some freedom). Again, do not insist your opinions are always correct; instead, offer open-ended questions and give them the time to answer thoughtfully. Their wishes should prevail until you see a health or safety concern.
6. Re-evaluate your approach if needed.
During these conversations, be aware of how your discussion is impacting your loved one. Are they becoming overly agitated? Do they need to take a break? Perhaps they would do better to have the list of questions ahead of time, in order to organize their thoughts. Maybe they communicate better in written form, and would like to them to answer sections of questions on their own. In any case, it’s important to use good communication skills and check-in with your loved one throughout the conversation, both to ensure you are understanding their answers, and that they are still comfortable with the process. The conversations should get easier once you get going, so don’t give up; remember your ultimate goal is to help preserve their wishes and advocate for them when they cannot.
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