Crucial Conversations with Older Parents

One of the topics I explore in my book Re-Designing Your Life: A Practical Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, which will be published early in 2018, centers around care-giving, especially as it pertains to our older parents. A very helpful article written by Steven Barlam was posted recently by Will Randolph on the Boomerstock facebook page. I re-post it here in the hope that it may help you with some of those difficult but crucial conversations you need to have with your aging parents.

Broaching Difficult Conversations with Aging Parents

December 5, 2017
Steve Barlam
You’re headed home for Christmas.

Amid the airport shuffle and holiday cheer, you’re distracted by worrisome thoughts. While you’re really looking forward to seeing your mom, the prospect of having a difficult conversation with her about driving has kept you up at night. She’s likely to be crushed, in denial, or furious. How can you broach this difficult topic and not ruin the holiday fun for the entire family?

Having Difficult Conversations with Aging Parents is Tough but Necessary

With holiday gatherings naturally bringing families and generations together, they provide a unique opportunity to talk face-to-face with your senior loved ones. Yet, the dual imperative of making lasting memories and tackling the complex issues aging brings in a limited time frame can make the atmosphere seem more like a pressure cooker than a holiday celebration.

Heavy talks can feel uncomfortable and forced. They can also detract significantly from what’s really valuable – connecting in meaningful ways, having fun and making memories.

6 Tested Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations with Aging Parents

The good news is, there are approaches you can take to create a smoother backdrop for addressing the hard issues in the least traumatic way, freeing up more time for family, food and fun.

Below are 6 tips from my 30-plus years of work with families and their aging parents to help set the wheels in motion and have a meaningful, fruitful conversation with your senior loved one:

Tip #1: Set the stage and plan for a conversation. 
It’s easy to dodge an impromptu conversation; it’s harder to avoid something that has been discussed and is part of the overall plan for a holiday get-together. Thus, setting expectations in advance is key.

Before the holiday, mention your desire to have a talk. For example, “When we come out next week, I’d love to catch up with you and check in on how you’ve been feeling, and any thoughts you’re having about the coming year.” It doesn’t need to be specific or neatly tied with a bow. Simply set the stage for the conversation to happen.

Tip #2: Schedule a specific window of time. 
Planning a time for your conversation is the one point where you’ll want to be extremely specific right away. When you carve out an intentional space on the schedule for a conversation with your aging parents, it feels less like a distraction from everything else and more like a part of the holiday plans. “Let’s aim for Saturday afternoon,” you could say. “I’d be glad to take you and dad out for coffee at Starbucks.”

Tip #3: Pacing is critical. Slow down when talking to your aging parents. 
I’ve seen adult children head into conversations moving at 90 mph even though their parents may be moving at 25 mph. Due to this, conversations can feel rushed and pressured, leaving all with a sense of frustration.

Remember, you may have given a lot of thought to some of the issues at hand, but your parent may not yet have considered them and may need time to process the issues or they will be in denial. Without the right emotional preparation, he or she might feel caught off guard and defensive, grilled or barraged with questions and therefore not be able to truly hear what you have to say. Often these situations result in the parent saying no to whatever is being suggested or they flatly refuse help.

Moving too quickly might exacerbate this. It risks leaving many concerns, problems and needs unvocalized — and other stones unturned.

To prevent rushing, check yourself during the conversation. Does your pace match that of your family member?

Forcing a tough discussion or pushing for a swift decision may result in less than ideal outcomes. You may spend the entire talk de-escalating a situation that arose simply because of the conversation itself, and wind up needing to postpone the talk to another time. If a conversation cannot be finished during the course of the visit, acknowledge this and set up a time in the coming weeks to follow up on the initial discussion. Ideally, you should do so no more than 3 weeks later.

Tip #4: Create an alliance through authenticity and appreciation. 
Your job during the discussion is to form an alliance with your aging loved one. While talking, try to really dial into what he or she finds important and discuss what matters most. Communicate thoughtfully by working to understand their perspective and how they view their world. Remember that elderly people suffer daily losses, and you can help simply through acknowledging their struggles. Especially around topics your parent doesn’t necessarily want to talk about or admit to, it’s always better to approach the conversation from a place of compassion, aligning yourself with your parents against your common enemy: whatever is bothering them.

Consider these two different approaches to overcome resistance:

Common approach: “Mom, you just have to give up driving. Your eye doctor has told you that your Macular Degeneration has gotten to a point where you just do not have adequate vision to drive safely. Here’s what I think we should do to make sure you don’t get into an accident.”

Thoughtful approach: “Mom, I’m so sorry we have to deal with challenges of Macular Degeneration. Because of this, your MD has said pretty clearly that you shouldn’t be driving. I appreciate how miserable this news must be. So I was just wondering if we could put our heads together and come up with other transportation options.”

Be real. Be honest. Appreciate the impact of the discussion. Family members who are aligned, authentic and appreciative can get through difficult conversations with aging parents with amazing grace.

Tip #5: Make a practical plan. 
If you can leave the discussion with a simple plan that includes next steps… often times that in itself will create a sense of relief for all involved.

Identifying the issues. When thinking about the issues to address consider the following categories, as these tend to be the key areas of concern for most families:

  • Physical well-being
  • Emotional well-being
  • Social well-being including activities that foster joy
  • Financial and material well-being

Once the needs are identified, start looking ahead to desired outcomes. If dad has lost weight, the desired outcome may be gaining or stabilizing weight. If mom is unhappy with her current MD’s inattentiveness, the desired outcome might be to enroll her with a new MD in the new year. Go back and forth with your senior loved ones, exchanging ideas and allowing them to plan for their future and shape with you the picture of their desired outcomes.

Your final step is to get specific about who will do what and when. Will you find your mom a new doctor? Will you get her a smartphone so she can Uber to and from appointments? Will you help organize a trip to visit the grandkids? How?

Tip #6: Don’t do this alone. 
Do you have to have the difficult conversation with your parent alone? Who else could help you in planning for the conversation? No one is expected to go down the path of caring for aging parents alone. It takes a team. Reach out to your team of family, friends and trusted professionals: an Aging Life Care Manager, a physician, an attorney, a financial planner, and an accountant. Your team will work in concert to ensure that the right conversations take place.

Even with the best-laid plans, there are times when family conversations do not go as anticipated. Do not fret. This is normal and does not mean all is lost. If in the end you feel like you’re going around in circles without reaching solutions, remember, important conversations are not one-time events. They need to be revisited on a regular basis, because a “no” today, does not mean a “no” forever. Planning ahead and having the conversations today can help you can help you address the critical issues while preserving family unity — and holiday cheer.

Steven Barlam, MSW, LCSW, CMC is the Chief Professional Officer and Co-Founder of LivHOME. Since 1985, Steve has worked exclusively in the field of geriatrics, working directly with clients and their families, and developing innovative service delivery models. He has served as President of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. Steve is a regular lecturer at local universities and national conferences on topics relating to care management, technology, and patient/client care.

The Gift of Time and Presence

In the Gospel of Luke 1:39-45, 56, we read how Mary reaches out to her older cousin Elizabeth. Mary, young, impoverished, unmarried and pregnant, is not worrying so much about her personal predicament, but rather she is focused on trying to help her elderly cousin cope with her own pregnancy. This is astonishing. Mary, unwed and pregnant, knew the punishment she faced – stoning. She has nothing but the story 

of an angel to tell her parents and her Joseph, the man to whom she is betrothed in marriage. Joseph would be well within his rights – even within his duty – to expose her sin and witness her execution. Any one of us in Mary’s situation would be frantic with worry for our own safety. But the Gospel lesson does not tell us this. It simply says that Mary got ready to visit her cousin and that she stayed with her three months. If she were really trying to flee her fate, she would never have gone to her cousin’s place. Given that Elizabeth was married to a well-known priest of the Temple, that would have been one of the first places where the authorities would have looked for Mary. No, this journey was not about escape. It was about caring for a beloved family member.

Why is Mary so concerned about her cousin Elizabeth? Well, for starters, Elizabeth now finds herself with child at an advanced age. At home with an elderly husband who is both deaf and mute, she is now six months pregnant. Because of her age and condition, it is no longer possible for her to go and draw water from the village well. It is no longer possible to go to market to her shopping or to look after the crops in her garden. So, Mary goes to stay with her cousin for the remainder of Elizabeth’s pregnancy because she wants to help her.

Now keep in mind that this was not just a short trip around the block for Mary. No. This was a 125-kilometer trek by foot and donkey by a pregnant 14-year-old. And when she arrives for a three-month stay, there is no mention of any housewarming gifts in tow, no talk of food platters or beautifully wrapped baby gifts. Mary has nothing to give her cousin. Like the song about the little drummer boy who has no gift to bring the baby Jesus, Mary is just a poor peasant girl from the backwater of Nazareth, who also has no gift to share.

That is, she has no material gift to share. But she does have something far more valuable to give Elizabeth: the gift of her presence, the gift of her love and care, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and two strong arms with which to draw water, tend gardens and prepare meals.

This is what Mary’s visit did for Elizabeth. Mary’s visit was gift and grace and comfort to Elizabeth. So, too, the family and friends and neighbours we visit this holiday season give us an opportunity to bring the same gift and face and comfort into their lives. The people we reach out to in the food bank or the shelter or the out of the cold meal, receive the presence of Christ through our presence and are thereby brought closer to God. visitation-1

You know, it’s so easy to drop by the mall or go online and order a gift; but how much lovelier is it when we make time to be with others and give the gift of ourselves, as Mary gave to Elizabeth. This is the gift that many people long for but do not receive at Christmas or any other time of the year. Why? Why are so many people denied this important gift?

Consider the story of the lawyer who lived over 800 kilometers away from her elderly father. They had not seen each in several months. The father calls her up and asks, “When are you going to visit?” The daughter proceeds to tell him about the demands on her time, her court schedule, meetings, and son on and so on, that prevent her from visiting. So, the father says, “You must tell me something I’ve been wondering about for some time now. When I die, so you intend to come to my funeral?” The lawyer responds, “Dad! I can’t believe you’d ask that. Of course, I’d come to your funeral.” The father replies, “Good. Let’s make a deal. Forget the funeral. I need you more now than I will then.”

What did the lawyer’s father desire? Her presence. He wanted to see her, to talk to her, to spend time with her. What got in the way? Busyness. Busyness is the enemy of so much good we might do for and with others. Busyness robs us of so much valuable time that we might spend with loved ones and friends. It is the source of much loneliness in the world and it robs people of our presence.

Mary might have had many worries on her mind, but her fears did not get in the way of caring for and being present to Elizabeth. She was there for her when she was needed.

Who are the people in your life – the relatives and friends and neighbours – who would receive your presence as a blessing? How can you give them the best gift of all this holiday season? Indeed, as many of us have discerned only upon entering the second half of life, there is one gift that is far superior to any we will ever receive, and it is one that we will never find under our Christmas tree. It is the gift of time, presence, and caring. Dear friends, may you be blessed with many beautiful moments spent with caring friends this Christmas and in the coming New Year.

The Art and Practice of Vulnerability

Recently my delightful twenty-something daughter shared with me the following TED Talk by Dr. Brené Brown, in which Brown reminds us that the most important thing in any of our lives are the connections we make with others, especially our friendships. As I move through the second half of my life, I appreciate this truth even more. What I want in life now is not more stuff, but more people with whom I can share open, honest relationships.

For this to happen, says Brown, one must be open to being vulnerable. Indeed, she has spent the past twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. What she has learned is that vulnerability is necessary if we are to form meaningful connections and care for ourselves. This is scary because we don’t like to expose our naked selves!

As Boomers, we have relied heavily on our striving and success in the workplace. We have touted our achievements, our academic degrees and awards, even hiding our true selves behind them. Learning to be vulnerable, especially after a lifetime focused on productivity and super-achieving, can be tough and even frightening. But the personal transformation it promises us, is well worth the struggle!

Enjoy Brown’s TED Talk below. If you are like me, you will be impressed enough to order her book:  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.


Boomers: Don’t Call Us ‘Seniors’!

It’s December! Where did the year go? It seems like just yesterday we were looking forward to the start of 2017 and now 2018 is staring us in the face!

I remember my mother used to comment on how quickly the years sped by, the older she got. As a second-wave Boomer, I can see what she meant. I may not be in the December of my life, but I can see it coming!

Which makes me recall a comment that was made to me by a fellow student when I was doing my doctoral work. The project I was creating for my D. Min. thesis was designed for Baby Boomers, to help them transition into the second half of life while growing spiritually. When discussing how to market the program, my Boomer friend Paula turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and said: “Whatever you do, do not identify this as a program for seniors. If you do, I will not come. I am not a senior!” I took Paula’s advice and am happy to report that I had so many register for the first course that I had to develop a waiting list for a second course, which was offered later in the year. The program will actually be available in book form early in 2018.

Boomers have always done things their way, and they are doing the second half of life their way too. Someone once said, if you are planning a program for Boomers at your church or synagogue, think of it as a youth group for mature adults. I like that. As Mom also used to say, “Inside I feel as though I am only 18. It’s only my knees and other aching joints that tell me otherwise!”

Check out two articles on this subject which I found recently. Let me know what you think. What moniker would you like?

“Don’t Call Us Seniors”: The Baby Boomers at 65 by Doug Norris, Ph.D. 

“I Say Senior, You Say Señor” by Frank Kaiser