The Difficult Conversation: Talking about Health with your Elderly Parents

As an adult with a senior parent or parents, it can sometimes feel awkward to talk about important life issues with them. As in most families, your parents have always been the authority, the source of advice, and a pillar of support, whether it was financial, emotional, or otherwise. Most people just avoid discussing the issues related to aging, health, and end of life until it’s too late, and the family relationships can suffer as a result.

While it might not be the easiest conversation to have, it’s important to take the time, cut through the diversionary tactics and subject-changing that might happen, and have “the talk” with your parent or parents the next time you see them. Once you start the conversation, you might be surprised to find out how much they want to talk about it, but didn’t know how to begin.

How do you start the conversation?

One of the easiest ways is to bring up a friend who may have recently gone through something similar (whether or not the friend is fictional is up to you). “Oh Mom, do you remember my friend Bob? His dad just had a stroke and Bob didn’t know what to do.” That opens the door for questions related to health and aging. Some of the important questions that you should cover would include the following:

  • Have you or Dad every talked about what happens when one of you dies?
  • Would you want to live home alone or move in with us?
  • Have you ever considered having someone come in to help with the house?
  • What would happen if one of you had a medical emergency at home alone?
  • What are your burial preferences and arrangements? Do you already have a plot?

These aren’t fun questions, of course. But they’re important. This would also be a good time to find out some of the other details you might not know:

  • Who’s your health insurance through? Who’s your primary care physician?
  • What medication do you currently take? Do you have any chronic conditions? Any ongoing treatments?
  • Do you have a will? Who’s your lawyer? Where are your important documents?
  • Who would help you in an emergency? Are there neighbors or friends who check on you regularly?
  • What’s your financial status? What accounts do you have and where?
  • Is your driver’s license still active? Have you had any accidents recently?

It’s important when having this conversation to make sure your parent or parents know that you’re not trying to threaten their independence. In fact, it might be a good idea to reinforce their independence through the discussion of potential in-home care solutions. If they can stay at home in their familiar surroundings, and have someone come to them, why wouldn’t they? Whether they need a regular caretaker, an occasional companion, or strictly scheduled medical needs, in-home care is the answer to many of the problems facing our aging parents.

Nobody likes to think about Mom and Dad getting older, but it’s a reality of life, and the sooner you can have the challenging conversations, the more relaxed everyone can be about the future. Remember – in most situations, to talk about difficult topics, sometimes all you have to do is be the one to start the conversation.