It’s that time of year when many families gather for holiday celebrations and check in on loved ones. It can be a tough combo, creating a celebratory mood while also dealing with serious family issues. I get a lot of questions from family caregivers about how to handle difficult conversations that come up around sensitive topics such as driving, personal care, housework and finances. Here are my top tips for setting up a successful conversation.
- Observe before you act. Before you even begin a conversation, spend time with loved ones observing and gathering accurate, specific information about your concerns. If you want to talk about driving, ride along first to make sure your concerns are valid. It helps if you can spend a few days with them and actually stay at their home. Is the mail piling up? Are they having trouble navigating stairs? Are they able to prepare healthy meals? Try to be objective, talking with other family members and key people who see them regularly. Then do your homework: Research the options for support and care for them. Never bring up a change unless you have realistic alternatives to offer. For example, if your loved ones stop driving, how will they get to the store, appointments, etc.? (Note that it helps if you can talk about a problem before it’s a major issue. It’s always easier to discuss how you might handle a situation when it’s still hypothetical.)
- Approach with love, concern and support. Make sure your mind and expectations are in the right place to set the tone. Starting out with a confrontational, negative attitude will sabotage the discussion. Don’t make it a power play. Remember that your role is always to support your loved ones and help them be as independent as possible, for as long as possible — not to take over their lives.
3. Communicate effectively.
- Use conversation starters. If you’re uncertain about how to bring up the subject, try an indirect approach such as discussing an article or a book you read, a friend’s situation or a television show.
- Ask them for input. It’s not a one-way conversation, so ask how they think they are doing and what adjustments they’ve thought about. Specific questions can be helpful, such as, “Are you ever worried about taking care of the house and yard?” “Is there anything you’d like to have more help with?” “Do you have any worries or concerns?” “If/when it’s time for you to hang up the keys, have you thought about other changes you’ll need to make?”
- Use “I” statements. Starting sentences with “You need to…” or “You just have to…” puts people on the defensive. Instead try “I am concerned about…” or “I want to support you with….”
- Listen, reflect and validate. Listen with an open mind, then rephrase and reflect back what you’ve heard from loved ones. Have compassion for their situation and understand that change is hard for anyone and that the “unknown” is the biggest fear for all of us — at any age. They may feel scared, angry, confused or hopeless. Try to understand their fears and concerns. Confirm that you understand their views and feelings, and take them into consideration when you talk about options.
- Include key people in the conversation. Sometimes the right people at the table can make all the difference. It may be a certain family member they listen to or a respected adviser such as the lawyer, doctor, faith community leader or friend. You might even consider an objective third party, like a care manager, counselor or mediator, to help facilitate the conversation.
Amy Goyer is AARP’s family, caregiving and multigenerational issues expert; she spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she is caring for her dad, who lives with her. She is the author of AARP’s Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and on Facebook.