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Talking with Aging Parents about the Future

Get some tips on talking with aging parents about the future from Seniorly. It isn't always easy getting parents to discuss future plans, but it is important.

By Arthur Bretschneider Updated on Jul 10, 2023

It’s a moment none of us are looking forward to, but most of us will arrive at inevitably: The time when you need to talk to someone you love about getting help with finances, medical directives, finding care at home or in an assisted living community, and the overall anxiety of aging. It’s best to have that conversation while they are still able to make decisions for themselves about the future.

Where do you begin? How do you approach it without making a senior feel their independence is being threatened? And in many cases, after years of them being the parent or guardian, how do you convince a loved one that now it’s your turn to help them make some important choices and decisions?

Initiating the conversation

The truth is, your loved one is probably already thinking about care and growing old with dignity. But regardless, initiating the conversation can be scary. There are many advisors, doctors, and professionals that can help you along the way, but someone in the family has to take the first step. And many seniors would rather delay or avoid the conversation altogether.

“Though we shun getting old, especially in this American society, people do think about their next step as each birthday passes," said Lisa Erbstoesser, a former hospice nurse and California-based consultant. Case managers, discharge planners at hospitals, elder lawyers, financial experts, and social workers specializing in geriatrics can all be helpful to families, she said. “But ultimately, a family member needs to step up.”

Make a plan ahead of time

Rather than the adult children and extended family all descending on your loved one for “a family meeting,” make a plan ahead of time.

Ross Wilkoff, an assisted-living administrator, advises that planning is a process that happens over a number of days or months, rather than a one-time, stress-filled family meeting when the adult children converge on their parents' home for a weekend.

Instead, do some research and find out what is available in your area for home care as well as senior living and assisted living facilities.

Gather prices and information on both. This will allow your aging parent to make sound financial decisions about putting money aside, purchasing a long-term health policy, or just knowing what to expect when the time comes. Financial planning is a large part of what will put their mind at ease and yours as well.

Give them the power

There is a key element to having a productive conversation with a still vibrant loved one about aging. That is, to let them know from the beginning, that they are the ones in charge of these decisions and they can map out their own future.

You can give them the information you have gathered about at-home costs, assisted living and senior housing, long-term insurance, advanced directives and financial planning, but the choices will ultimately be theirs. Let them know you will be with them and explore options together, but they will still have the final say.

One of the scariest parts of aging is losing control of making decisions for themselves. This will reassure your loved one that you don’t want that to happen.

Advance directives

Advance directives are legal documents that detail the type of medical intervention a person would like in case of a serious illness or injury where they are not able to speak for themselves.

The document states their wishes in terms of sustaining life through breathing machines, resuscitation in case their breathing or heart stops, tube feeding, organ donation or dialysis.

And then there’s also the designation of the health-care proxy. Designating a person you trust to make medical decisions if you are unable. It can be a spouse, a sibling or a child, but it’s important that decision is made. 

All of this can be done with a durable power of attorney document. You can hire an attorney to assist you or several organizations have the forms and online kits to get you started.

Much of this information you can find through the national hospice foundation.

The Five Wishes Foundation

The Five Wishes foundation is another great resource. It helps people to articulate their end of life wishes and in some states, the document they provide is legal (you’ll have to check with your individual state). Either way, going through these wishes together is a great way to start a conversation about a difficult topic:

  1. Who do you want to make healthcare decisions for you when you cannot?
  2. What kind of medical treatment do you want or not want?
  3. How comfortable do you want to be?
  4. How do you want people to treat you?
  5. What do you want your loved ones to know?

Starting a conversation when there’s resistance

Many seniors would rather avoid talking about the future. One way to open the door is to have a family member talk about how they would answer the five wishes and encourage their aging relative to share theirs.

If the discussion is just too painful for a loved one, the Hospice Foundation suggests “First acknowledging the person's fears and then pointing out that family members will be in anguish when making these decision without knowing exactly what the elderly person wants. Don't insist on an immediate discussion; schedule it for a later time.”

This important conversation will almost certainly unfold slowly over time, especially if your loved one is resistant to it. Be patient and make it clear that you’re asking because you want them to make these decisions while they can so that you can respect and follow them later.

Making plans ahead of time is a gift to your loved one and the entire family. As difficult as the conversation can be to start, you will all be much happier and relieved to have a plan in place.

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written by:
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Arthur Bretschneider is CEO and Co-Founder of Seniorly. As a third generation leader in the senior living industry, Arthur brings both deep compassion and a wealth of practical experience to his work at Seniorly. Arthur holds an MBA from Haas School of Business and has been featured in the New York Times and Forbes Magazine as a thought leader in the senior living space. Arthur is a passionate and vocal advocate for improving the lives of older adults through community, and believes strongly that structured senior living environments can positively impact the aging experience.

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