Are there conversations you wouldd like to have with your parents as they age, but you just don’t know how to start? Maybe you are seeing changes that concern you, or you just want to get some peace of mind about the future. How do you bring up important topics such asd driving, finances, independent living and where things are that they or you may need one day?
Many baby boomers find it difficult to approach their parents about sensitive matters. Here are some guidelines to help make conversations about five key topics easier.
• Driving: This is one of the toughest issues that comes with aging. The car keys represent independence. Who wants to give that up and have to depend on others to get around? But if Dad or Mom has had an accident or a close call, it’s a matter of their and others’ safety. Can you live with yourself if one of your parents gets angry with you for taking away the keys? Can you live with yourself if something terrible happens to one of your parents?
What to do: Tell your parents what you’ve noticed: dents in the car, slower reaction time, going through a stop sign or red light. When did they last have their hearing or vision tested? Take them for a driving evaluation or test. Talk to their doctor about your concerns. Elders are sometimes better able to hear a recommendation from a professional they know and trust. If the evidence indicates that it’s time to stop driving, express empathy and acknowledge the loss, but tell them you are concerned about their safety. Offer to take them or find transportation to medical appointments and for errands and activities in the community.
• Finances: Do you know what your parents’ financial resources are? They may not have a totally clear idea themselves or have chosen to keep this information private, or perhaps you have felt it would be intrusive to ask. They and you do need to know whether they have enough funds to take care of their needs.
What to do: Find out what your parents’ wishes are. Ask: “Where do you want to be? If you can’t manage completely on your own now, or at some time in the future, what kind of living arrangement can you afford?” Does he or she have a long-term care policy? If your parents want to remain in place but will need some additional support, ask: “How can I help you stay here if I don’t know whether you have enough money?” If your parents choose not to share this information with you, ask them to speak to a trusted family member or a financial adviser, if they have one, and to make a plan that will give them access to the funds they may need for their care.
• Know where important information is: If your parents became ill or incapacitated, would you know where to find the doctors’ names and numbers, medications, health care policies, Medicare and Social Security numbers, bank accounts and safe deposit box key? Who has power of attorney? You don’t want to be rummaging through files and drawers looking for vital documents, especially in an emergency situation.
What to do: Ask your parents now to record all the important information they or you may need in the future, in one safe place. It can be in the form of a binder or folder. Jewish Community Services can provide a document called The F.I.L.E., where your parents can record financial information, insurance, legal documents and more on their own or with your help. Ask your parents to tell you where they are putting this information in case you should need it.
• Moving: Bringing up the idea of moving can be one of the most difficult conversations to have with an aging parent. You may feel that a move is either necessary or desirable, whether for financial, health, safety, social or other reasons. However, many people resist the idea of moving from their homes, and this sometimes causes frustration, anger and hurt feelings. The best scenario is one in which there is time to talk about and plan for a move, but sometimes circumstances change quickly and we don’t have that luxury. The idea of moving is OK if you could just walk out the door and close it behind you. The reason elders most frequently give for resisting is that the mere thought of moving — the physical work involved — feels overwhelming.
What to do: If your parents find the whole idea of moving too daunting, assure them that you will help. Outline a plan with specific steps to accomplish this huge job. There are companies that help people organize a move. Ask your parents: “What are you really giving up and what are you gaining?” They may see that they can leave behind the steps, outdoor maintenance and being alone most of the day. If they are downsizing, they still can choose which possessions and family photos to bring along. Something that may feel harder to leave is all the history tied up in a home — the holidays celebrated together, the children’s height charts on the wall, the hopes, dreams, laughter and tears shared as a family in that place. Tell them, “The history goes with you. You leave walls, but the history is in you.”
• Staying engaged: Isolation is the No. 1 enemy of successful aging. It often leads to depression, physical health problems and loss of social skills. We all need to be with other people, and this is especially true for older people who cannot come and go on their own. Even when elders move from living alone to a CCRC or assisted-living community, they may find it difficult to make new friends at first.
What to do: Be alert for signs of depression, such as loss of interest in social contact and usual activities, changes in eating or sleeping habits and persistent sadness or irritability. Encourage your parents to continue being involved in what they really enjoy — playing mahjong, going to synagogue, attending meetings of organizations and clubs. Also help them find new social outlets and interests such as senior centers and groups meeting in their new community. To overcome hesitation, ask a friend to take Mom or Dad along or go with your parent once or twice to ease into this new situation.
• Conclusion: We want our parents to live to a ripe old age with the best possible quality of life. Whether they are living independently or need our care, they want to be treated like adults and with respect, just as we all do. If you observe a problem or a change that concerns you, mention it to your parents. Be positive, and try to come up with a plan together. If they don’t recognize the problem, you may need to plant a seed and wait a bit before returning to the topic. Look for solutions, resources and supports that maximize your parents’ strengths and promote independence.
• Resources: Jewish Community Services offers a range of tailored services to help guide families through this process. For more information, call JCS at 410-466-9200.
Janet B. Kurland, LCSW-C, is senior care specialist and Gail Lipsitz is coordinator of public relations at Jewish Community Services.