Preparing for Tough Conversations With Seniors

Throughout life, there are many difficult parent-child conversations. Perhaps the most difficult are the conversations that take place between an aging parent and an adult child. It’s best not to enter into these important conversations blindly, so we’ve put together some helpful hints and resources on how to open the lines of communication and ensure the comfort of both parties.

The Child-Parent Conversation: The 40-70 Rule

The first step toward a solution is defining the problem through communication. The most frequent topics that come up between aging parents and adult children are about changes that will affect their lifestyle. This can include things like driving, personal appearance, temporary or permanent memory loss, managing finances and home safety. (For related reading from the author, see: 7 Ways Baby Boomers Can Financially Assist Their Parents.)

Statistically, 31% of Baby Boomers have communication difficulties with their parents due to the parent-child roles that emerged in childhood. In addition, nearly 47% of adults in their 40s and 50s are part of the sandwich generation, which means they are caring for a parent age 65 or older and are still raising and/or financially supporting their own children.

It is sometimes difficult for us to have a peer-to-peer conversation with our parents, particularly if you are the youngest child. In fact, my mom used to tell me, “as long as I’m around, I’m the mother and you’re the child,” which was a difficult statement to hear when I needed to have these crucial discussions.

There is a wonderful booklet called The 40-70 Rule, which is a guide to conversation starters for Boomers and their senior loved ones. This guide was prepared by Jake Harwood, Ph.D., University of California at Santa Barbara, from his research on communication and aging. If you feel that “the conversation” time is drawing near, this guide is an excellent reference.

When navigating these challenging chats, keep sites like Home Instead and Aging 2.0 in mind. Home Instead recognizes the need for non-medical home care and elder companionship services to help seniors live independently at home, and Aging 2.0 connects, educates and supports innovators dedicated to improving the lives of older adults around the world.

The Parent-Child Conversation: The 70-40 Rule

For those seniors who want to initiate conversations with their children but don’t know where to begin, there’s a helpful booklet called The 70-40 Rule, also prepared by Jake Harwood. This is a guide to conversation starters for seniors and their children. It offers some great tips on how to raise the issues, approach the conversations and come to a mutual understanding of how you want to live your life without creating uneasiness in the family. I have a friend who told me not to “should on yourself” (i.e. “I should have told my children about my finances” or “I should have moved into an assisted living facility”). It’s important not to blame yourself for something that is out of your hands. By taking the appropriate measures and having these sometimes difficult conversations with your children early on, you can make your life “should free!”

The Driving Conversation

Take a moment and think back to what it felt like to be a teenager with car keys in your hands and the ability to go wherever your heart desired. At the time, car keys meant freedom—a freedom that as adults we often take for granted. Now imagine that freedom being taken from you. How will you get to the grocery store, what if you want to meet a friend for lunch, etc. 

Any discussion about changes, especially about driving cessation, can be quite uncomfortable for both parties involved for many reasons. It means a loss of freedom and independence for the individual affected. It is also a “role reversal” for many of us who have elderly parents or spouses with whom we need to have the conversation. Finally, it can be seen as an embarrassment for the elder adult to rely on others for assistance.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers an online program complete with tips and tools on how to facilitate the driving conversation. The program offers highway safety guidelines, adapting motor vehicles for older drivers, and conversation starters to help understand and motivate older drivers.

Another excellent resource is CarFit—an educational program that offers older adults the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles “fit” them. The program assesses cognitive abilities and skills and ensures that their cars are properly adjusted for optimal driving capabilities.

Whether you’re the caregiver or the one being cared for, understand the importance of these conversations, and be sure to initiate them before an emergency or irreversible situation arises. As with many things in life, the right timing and attitude can contribute to a positive outcome.

(For more from this author, see: 6 Life Events That Call for Professional Financial Advice.)