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Holiday Visits: How to Begin Conversations With Aging Family Members

With the holiday season fast approaching, many families are traveling to spend time with parents and relatives. In addition to enjoying holiday gatherings, festive meals and favorite family traditions, the holidays may be one of the few opportunities for adult children to talk with their parents about important age-related topics (just don’t talk at the dinner table; wait for a quiet, relaxed time).

These types of conversations can be uncomfortable, but do not avoid them. Here are a few tips to make the conversation go more smoothly:

  • Start by educating yourself on key age-related topics, such as senior housing options, health-care and long-term care alternatives, end-of-life decisions and financial considerations.
  • Make a list of topics to discuss, such as the location of important documents (wills, health-care directives, birth certificates, financial documents, medical records, etc.), living preferences, financial obligations and ability to pay for future care needs, long-term care preferences and end-of-life wishes.
  • Be their partner, not their parent. Treating your parents as you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes is important. And, yes, one day this will be us!
  • Help your parents maintain as much control in their lives as possible. This is especially critical because many older adults feel losses each day: the loss of physical strength, health, peers, identity, authority, etc. Their reaction is to try to hang on tight to whatever control they can. As adult children, we need to recognize this need for control and facilitate it every way we can.
  • One way to get the conversation started is by asking meaningful open-ended questions, such as, “Last time we talked, Aunt Sally was determined to stay in the house where she’s lived for more than 40 years. What finally made her decide to move into an assisted-living community?” Another example would be, “Mom, you’ve told me all about your sister Myrtle and how her death affected you. What else is on your mind?” Consider this approach regarding money: “Dad, Brad and I are saving for our retirement, and I’m wondering how you handled this. How much money is enough? Do you worry about the cost of long-term care? Do you feel you have saved enough?”
  • Give your parents time and space to process and think about their future. Remember, these are emotional, major life decisions, so don’t rush them.
  • Realize that a single conversation during the holidays isn’t likely to address all the big issues, but it does open the door to continued conversations in the future.

The holidays can be a comforting time for families to start talking about their parents’ future health and well-being. But remember to have fun and enjoy the holidays!

For more information on aging issues, contact me at jane.strommen@ndsu.edu or (701) 231-5948.

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