It’s a fact of life – all people age. Yet so many of us feel unprepared for the time when our aging parents become dependent on us. So many needs and capabilities change due to their age. It can be difficult for you and them to accept that they may need extra help with finances, home maintenance, and even everyday tasks like grocery shopping.
When I first realized I needed to have the conversation with my in-laws, we knew it would be a tough one– how do we bring it up without it turning into a fight? When we did bring up the conversation, it was tense, and we were frustrated when they wouldn’t listen.
When my Dad had Alzheimer’s, he was young (71), my Mom was able to make decisions, and we supported her all the way. My in-laws were a different story. They were aging in a city where no family lived. The nearest child was 4 hours away.
It’s essential to approach this complex topic with empathy and perspective every step of the way. And do it sooner than later. After all, your parents have probably been independent adults long before you could tie your shoes, so it’s a big transition for them.
Experience with my in-laws and my parents, plus years of experience assisting clients through these conversations, gave me a new perspective. I’ve gathered some advice you can use to jumpstart your discussions – and keep the peace.
Set the Foundation Early
If you’re wondering when the best time is to start these conversations, the answer is probably “now.” You don’t want to wait until they have an urgent medical issue to spring this topic on them – it’s always best to start early. Also, ensure all siblings and their families are included in the discussions. One person may be the best to lead the conversation, but all siblings need to know what is happening.
Sometimes it is also learning more about how your parents think about money and independence. What is most important to them? Ask questions instead of telling them what you think they should do. The most powerful way to get them to start thinking about changes is to let them come up with solutions.
That doesn’t mean you need to jump into the specifics right away. Instead, come up with an agreement together: “When (blank) happens, we need to discuss (blank).” For example, my Mom has a point system when she drives. She starts with 10 points and deducts points for near misses, mistakes, and not paying attention. She told me when she gets to less than 5 points in a row; she will start thinking about giving up driving.
Maybe when they miss paying a bill or two, they agree to reach out and let you know. Or, if they struggle to maintain the yard, they’ll ask for help. You want them to feel comfortable coming to you for assistance. Then you can work out a solution together. For example, if they’ve missed paying two or three bills in the last year, you can help them set up automatic payments. If they can’t keep up with housekeeping, you can help find someone to help clean.
Set specific triggers that let you and them know it’s time to step in and help. Most parents won’t ask for help. You want to help them find the support, not just hire someone to come in without their permission.
An early, positive approach to these conversations sets the foundation for more significant transitions down the road, such as moving to a new home.
They May Respond Poorly
Even if you’ve done everything by the book, you can’t control how your parents will respond. One of the most common adverse responses? “I don’t need help.”
In this instance, you can explain why you think they need assistance: “Dad, you called me three times last week and needed help with your yard. Maybe we should hire someone to mow and weed the yard once a week.”
Another common issue arises when moving closer to help or even to an assisted living facility. If the conversation halted with a “No way!” from Mom or Dad, try approaching the discussion by sharing your perspective. It likely stresses you to drop everything and travel when they need help – and it would be much easier if they lived closer. Remind them of when you were a kid, and you might disappear for hours, and they were mad you didn’t tell them where you were – the feelings are similar. Sometimes they think being closer is more of a burden.
Sometimes nothing you say helps, then it’s about asking them questions about what they need, letting them know you aren’t forcing anything. Still, we can make your life a little easier.
Keep Your Cool
However upset your parents are, you must keep your cool. The entire point of this conversation is to help one another, not to become adversaries. When in doubt, take a breath and give them space to think things through – then reevaluate.
Small discussions over time almost always work better than ultimatums. Remember, they don’t want to burden anyone, but they also don’t want to lose their freedom or feel incapable.
I recommend you keep a journal of these conversations to reference later. Any notes or journals will also provide a document of those “trigger” agreements you discussed earlier.
You can also use this journal to brainstorm more ideas. Keep trying new ways to approach helping your parents – eventually, one will stick. Your relationship with your parents evolves as you, and they age, and your best action is to keep communication open, honest, and empathetic.
Whatever you do, don’t quit.
Keep the Conversation Going with Clarity
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