Tips for Difficult Family Conversations

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In the course of caring for our aging loved ones many family members must have difficult conversations around decisions and changes – whether they be about driving, living situations, health care, financial or care and support issues. Here are some of my tips for approaching these conversations, as well as my Taking Care with Amy Goyer video (above) on the topic.

  • Talk early and often. The more you’ve discussed and planned for the future, the easier it will be when it is time to make decisions.
  • Do your homework first. Observe your loved one’s situation, identify areas of concern, talk with other family members, then research the options for support and care for them.
  • Start by expressing your love and concern. Be clear that your thoughts and actions are motivated by your love and your desire to help them be as independent as possible for as long as possible. Be sincere; family members will see through a snow job right away. It’s not about buttering them up for the fall, it’s about honest, caring, clear communication.
  • Your role is to provide support for them, not take over their lives and be a “parent” to your parents. If you communicate from this vantage point they will feel less threatened. Don’t make this a power play. Talk about ways you can support their independence, even if it means making some changes.
  • Use “I” statements. Any time you start a sentence with “you” be aware of how your loved one will react. “You need to …” or “You just have to …” will put people off. Instead, try “I am concerned about …” or “I want to help you …”
  • Ask them to say how they think they are doing. Don’t just dive in with your opinions, ask for theirs as well. If they say everything is fine as is, express your own concerns.  Ask about specifics if it’s hard to get the conversation going, for example:
    • Do they ever think about the future and how to plan for a time when they may need more support?
    • Are they ever worried about taking care of the house and yard?
    • Do they ever feel unsafe, isolated or uncomfortable being alone?
    • What would they like to do more of?
    • Would a bit of help with a few things ease their stress?
  • Validate their feelings. Change is hard, and the “unknown” is the biggest fear for all of us of any age. It’s normal to want to avoid change, so tell them you understand their reluctance, fears or even anger and you want to help make change easier for them. Sometimes they just need acknowledgment that this is hard stuff to deal with.
  • Involve the right people in the conversation. Include trusted family members or, if needed, an objective third party to facilitate the conversation. If your parents always take your brother’s advice, be sure he’s there. If they trust their doctor, financial adviser or lawyer, then arrange for an appointment and go along.
  • Try an indirect approach. As a more casual conversation starter, talk about a friend dealing with his/her parents or an article you read, or seeing a television show on the subject.
  • Offer specifics and alternatives. Especially if you want them to give something up, have some resources and options lined up already so they know there will be a replacement or alternative available.

For more on the fantastic NBC Nightly News series on caregiving and the sandwich generation, watch these segments and additional exclusively online video (which you can view immediately after the segments – keep your browser open and they will start automatically) and articles:

  1. Caregiver Stress
  2. Critical Family Conversations
  3. Multigenerational living

Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and Facebook AmyGoyer1