Talking 'Bout Our Generation: How to Begin the Talk

When we boomers were young, nothing was more nerve-racking than sitting down with Mom or Dad to have a "talk" - usually about sex, but really about growing up. Now the tables are turned and it's just as hair-raising to talk to them about growing old. In the first episode of Your Turn To Care, three brothers join together to care for their 74-year-old mother, following her diagnosis of Parkinson 's disease. Because she is very private woman, it is challenging for her to openly discuss her finances and difficult choices such as whether or not to prolong her life in a medical emergency. Her sons bring in a gerontology expert to help them bring up the subject, get important documents in order and learn how advanced planning can help avert a crisis.

Here are a few pointers from Chicago-based Family Communication Coach Dale Susan Edmonds that can help you take the terror out of talking.

  • Start now - Start while your aging parents are fairly healthy, when there are no apparent concerns and everyone is less susceptible to panic or pressure.
  • Start small - Begin to bring up issues as they arise in everyday conversations. Interest may be piqued by a news story, a TV show or movie, while shopping and noticing health care or safety products or a story of your own experience or that of your peers.
  • Timing is everything - Make sure your loved one has time to talk and that you have time to listen.
  • Mood - Are you already frustrated or angry with your loved one's behavior? Then it's not a good time to talk.
  • Place - Find somewhere that is a "safe space" according to how mom or dad would define it as well as for yourself. Is there more comfort at home or in an outside restaurant or park?
  • People - Could a particular person be related to creating a "safe space?" Or a hindrance? Perhaps they should be invited to join the conversation or specifically avoided.
  • Focus - You're laying the ground work to understand your parents' feelings, wishes and needs. You want to get information, and to share information.
  • Start Small - You don't need to try to get the answer you want today - you don't even need an answer at all today. But this will happen bit by bit over time.
  • Jump Right In - Waiting and avoiding will not make it easier. The ease and comfort will come through practice, through making honest mistakes, and through building trust.

How do you get started? Here are some great suggestions:

  • Pick one topic that YOU have not yet completed and begin to gather your own information. Take the time to talk to elderly parents thoughtfully, and note what you believe, what your conflicts are. Have the conversations with your spouse or partner or a trusted confidant and make sure that your preparations in this area are complete. Pay attention to what was awkward or difficult, it will help you tune into and respect your parents' hesitation or concerns.
  • Test the conversations with some of your friends. Ask if they have ever thought about these things for themselves. "Have you thought about ________ yet? What's the hardest thing in getting started? What happens if you don't have it done when it's needed?" Ask if they have had any of these conversations with their parents. What worked? What didn't? And if their parents are deceased, "What do you wish you had known earlier?"
  • Now -- have a conversation with your parents. Let them know what you've been working on. Ask if they've ever thought about these things. Would they be willing to work on writing down their wishes so that you and the rest of the family will be able to make decisions according to their wishes?
  • If nothing else gets you going, start with gathering emergency information. Start with your own. Your health care proxy, doctors, med lists, even ICE. Then let your parents know what you've done and offer to help them start getting their plans together.
  • Emdonds says that your approach to your parents should be natural and matter-of-fact. Your goal is to talk to elderly parents and continually stress your role to be in a partnership and a supporter helping them live the life they want.
  • Help them to understand that this work, which you are doing now, will help to ensure they will still be in control of their own lives and decisions, even if someday, they are no longer able to speak for themselves.

For more information visit Dale Susan Edmonds' website Talk Early, Talk Often.

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