November 18, 2020

Difficult Aging Conversations: What to do if You See the Signs

Senior man and son eat and talk at kitchen table at home.
For many adult children, the time comes when you have to have a difficult conversation with your aging parents. Perhaps it’s because the electricity got cut off because Mom or Dad forgot to pay the bill. Or maybe one of them had a car accident. Even a fender-bender can trigger one of those “you shouldn’t be driving anymore” talks.

Yikes.

Having these conversations with our parents can be hard. Nobody enjoys the idea of a confrontation.

These tips can help you avoid just that. Use these general strategies to ease those hard conversations and change them into productive meetings that leave everyone feeling heard.

Ease Hard Conversations with These Tips

1. Prepare your mindset advance. Understand that it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to avoid ever having a sensitive conversation with one or both of your parents. If you accept the idea that you’ll have to broach these subject eventually, then you’ll have time to prepare how to open the conversation. In general, if you’re over age 40 or your parents are over 70, then it’s time to start talking about their future needs together.

2. Avoid kneejerk reactions. Don’t wait to talk until there’s an emergency, like a car accident or a broken hip from a fall. Instead, start early to gather information and observations about your parents’ home life: how safe it is, how well they’re functioning on an everyday basis, whether or not they can manage their health needs (such as taking insulin). Then plan a family meeting with them to discuss where they’re at – and where they want to go.

3. Start with a goal of maximum independence. Many aging adults fear being sent to a nursing home or feeling forced to downsize into assisted living. Early in your conversation, emphasize that your goal is to help your parents live at home for as long as possible – but you want them to be as safe as possible, too.

How to Start Very Sensitive Conversations with Your Parents

Certain topics trigger anxiety in both adult children and their parents: the “car keys” talk, the “how are your finances” chat. Use these tips to start conversations on the most difficult topics that arise between adult children and their aging parents.

1. The Car Keys Talk

If you notice damage to your parents’ car, consider it an invitation to chat – but make it an information-gathering talk. Ask what happened to the car. Find out the facts involved. Perhaps your parents were the victim of an unsafe driver, not the other way around. Once you have the facts, be straightforward by saying something like, “I’m worried that eventually you’ll have to give up driving. Let’s make a plan for how to address that, in case it happens.”

2. The Your-House-is-a-Mess Talk

A messy house can be a sign of many issues related to aging: loss of energy and stamina, loss of muscle tone, depression caused by loneliness. Again, start by telling them what you’re seeing – and make clear you’re not judging them but wanting to work toward a solution that benefits them. Offer your observations, such as, “Gee, when we kids were growing up, I never remember seeing dishes stacked in your sink, Mom. And, you know, after a lifetime of doing dishes, I think you deserve some help with that. Can we talk about this?”

3. The Money Talk

Gulp. Many people don’t discuss their personal finances with anyone else (aside from their spouse). But if you notice your parents aren’t eating out as often or have canceled trips to visit the grandchildren, then you might need to ask about their financial situation. If you’re uncertain whether they’re actually in trouble, you can start by making a general offer of help, such as, “I know you’re pretty private about money, but you know that if you ever ran into problems I’d do what I could to help, right?” This gentle opener could swing the door open to a larger conversation about your parents’ overall financial situation, who holds power of attorney, and other important issues.

If you approach these difficult conversations from a non-judgmental, non-authoritarian point of view, you may find it easier to broach these sensitive topics and work in partnership with your parents to develop life plans that help them age well in the place they’re happiest: their own home.