Opening up and talking honestly to an aging parent or spouse about future care needs and options can be awkward. However, initiating a conversation prior to a health-care crisis indicates concern about your parent’s well-being. It shows you respect their choices about how they want to live in their older years. And there’s no time like the present to get talking!
When it comes to dealing with eldercare and life transitions, at least a third of adult children experience communication obstacles with their mothers and/or fathers. Often parents are still operating on the parent-child model rather than a peer-to-peer model, making open conversations tricky at best. Sometimes spouses haven’t had strong communication skills their whole marriage, so it’s not unexpected that discussions don’t go smoothly.
The first conversation is always the hardest but, I promise, it gets easier. If you can initiate the discussion while your loved one is still healthy and active, it’s easier still. Do it before a crisis forces you and your family to make decisions on the fly. Emergencies rarely allow the opportunity to review all the options and discuss needs and preferences.
One of the best times to speak candidly to your parent is when a natural opportunity arises. If one of their close friends is sick or dying, has acquired a mobility aid or must relinquish their driver’s licence, a conversation about your parent’s own plans would be timely.
Are financial, legal and care preparations in place if faced with an unexpected change in health or mental capacity?
Will children or other supporters need to be involved if more support or care is required?
At what point would they consider asking for or accepting help?
Is private care (to help with household tasks, personal care, home maintenance) an option?
Has anyone researched costs of different housing and care options?
If faced with an immediate crisis, how would bills be paid? Who would make sure accounts have adequate funds?
What kind of living arrangements are preferred?
Are long-term plans in place?
Is there a solid understanding of how the healthcare system works in providing care and support to seniors?
Who is willing to step up in the family caregiver role?
When my father had the first of three strokes, a defining moment became etched in my memory. We were sharing a family dinner. Wanting to be helpful, I reached over to cut Dad’s meat in small pieces so he wouldn’t have to struggle with his one good hand.
Furious, he shouted, “Parents cut up their children’s food not the other way around. Don’t do that again!”
I was devastated and shuffled out of the room muttering, “I was only trying to help, Dad.”
Half an hour later, Dad opened the door to the porch, waving his white handkerchief. Under his arm was a bag of peanut M&M’s. He smiled, “Truce?”
Dipping into the chocolates, Dad spoke about the paradox of accepting help. “On one hand, I feel this immense sense of pride and love that my daughter is so caring and willing to help. And then I feel this incredible wave of anger and resentment toward you for having to help me.”
As Dad struggled to cope with staggering losses caused by multiple strokes – inability to work as a lawyer, loss in physical strength and energy – he also became acutely aware of the burden placed on his family. Doing his best to retain his dignity, he hung on to what was most valuable: his independence and control.
One of the best strategies in communicating with an aging parent or spouse – and helping them keep autonomy – is to think about LOVE.
L – Listen and Only Listen
Turn off your inner voice and do not pass judgment. As difficult as it may be, just listen. This is often a big step in gaining someone’s confidence so they may tell you more.
O – Omit the Advice
Experts agree, imposing your way of thinking or giving unsolicited advice will yield undesirable results. In not-so-diplomatic terms, you’ll tick off your loved ones and they’ll likely dig in their heels. Although we don’t mean to, when offering advice, we inadvertently portray the person we are caring for as incompetent or unable to make decisions. We take away their control and independence. And if there is one thing to truly avoid saying, “Mom, Dad . . . there’s something wrong with you.”
V – Validate and Then Ask Questions
Rephrase and repeat what you hear; that way, the speaker knows you heard them. This then allows you to ask questions. You may not agree with what they are saying or perhaps feel they’re making the wrong decision, but asking questions or inquiring about details lets everyone think through the response. For instance, you might wish to ask questions such as these:
“What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a home-meal program versus having the children cook?”
“If you don’t sell the house, will there be any possible long-term effects?”
“Mom, if you move to Toronto, how would that affect the family?”
This approach allows the person you are caring for to direct their care and decisions in an open and nonjudgmental atmosphere.
E – Empathize
Put yourself in the other’s shoes and think. “If I were Dad, and the effects of the stroke made reading difficult, how would I feel?” Your goal is to understand how others are feeling and to support them by saying things like, “You must feel so frustrated by your stroke. I know how much you love to read, Dad.”
Stop avoiding and start talking – today!
Looking for a few more tips about effective communication? Check out another of our blogs from a few years back. Good advice, like good music, is timeless.
Watch for the Signs
Caregiver Consultations: How We Help Frail Elderly Parents
Long Distance Caregiving
– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC
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