Have You Had the Talk Yet? March 2008
One of our local papers recently published an article urging adult children to raise their concerns with their aging parents. Several readers took umbrage at the implication in the article that by the age of 70, parents were no longer competent to manage their own affairs. I am sure many of you would also challenge this assumption!
At the same time, this connects with the issue I planned to address this month: how do we have family conversations about aging issues? I want to be expansive here and include not only parent-adult child conversations, but sibling conversations, and even extended family. I think that one of the best ways to maintain being in charge of your life throughout your lifespan is to make plans and let your family know what your wishes are. I also assert that this conversation can be initiated by either generation. And just like “the talk” you were supposed to have when they were teens, this is a talk that should go on many times over the years, because your plans and wishes may change as your needs and circumstances evolve. The topics should include preferences for residence and care, designating powers of attorney for health and financial issues, advance directives, wills and estate plans, where you keep important records, funeral and burial plans, and a HIPPA release for medical records.
These are not easy conversations in most families. No one wants to lose loved ones. We live in a culture that denies aging or treats it like a taboo. Parent-child roles are powerful and enduring. Many families live at a distance so family gatherings only occur on major holidays, and no one wants to raise the “serious issues” on happy occasions, or it’s already stressful, or too short a visit, or the kids are in the room, or it’s raining… Sometimes it is the parents who are uncomfortable, sometimes the children, sometimes only one person in the family who keeps changing the subject. But by avoiding the discussions, we can miss important opportunities to share and listen and honor each other. Many people are able to maintain independence throughout their lives, but if the day comes when you can not make safe and appropriate decisions for yourself, wouldn’t it be better to have a plan in place that everyone understands and supports?
I recently met with an adult child who told me that her brother was the legal power of attorney, but he didn’t know he had been designated and didn’t want to do it, and now her father was not competent to change it. Another bemoaned the conflict among her siblings over their parent’s care plan. In another situation, we are seeking a family member who will make decisions where there are no children. The examples of what can happen when you put off these conversations are endless.
Here are some suggestions that may help on this journey:
· Don’t wait for a crisis. Start now!
· Don’t leave out key players.
· Find a neutral starting point such as a news item or article to ask how your family feels about an issue.
· Use another person’s experience to talk about how you would want things to be similar or different.
· Set aside time for a family meeting and let everyone know ahead of time so they can feel prepared.
· Prepare your own thoughts in advance. Bring along information that can help you describe the choices you have made.
· If you are the adult child, list specific examples that illustrate your concerns.
· Be open to other ideas or perspectives that you might not have considered. Listen to what everyone feels, thinks and needs.
· Anticipate concerns and be ready to address them.
· Ask for help from a professional such as one of PSRC’s social workers or a geriatric care manager who are trained in conducting family meetings.
Don’t give up. You may get resistance or it may feel uncomfortable but keep going!
Susan W. Hoskins, LCSW