The holidays are upon us, and for some, it may be one of the few times a year we are lucky enough to have the whole family in one place. It’s a time of year filled with food, traditions, memories, family gatherings and conversation. But for families facing big decisions about the best ways to care for parents as they age, these conversations can be difficult.
In his book “How to Say it to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with our Elders” David Solie, M.S., P.A., offers practical suggestions for diffusing the tension that sometimes accompanies family conversations. Solie has spent a lifetime building expertise in both the medical and the financial and insurance fields. In his work, he recognized that the strategies he used to communicate with young newlyweds planning for a first home were entirely different than those he used with aging individuals considering estate planning and moving into an independent living community.
In his book, Solie writes that whether we know it or not, aging adults are reexamining their lives through the enhanced lens of age. For most of life, we move forward. Then suddenly, the focus shifts to hindsight, and people naturally start to evaluate their lives, and determine how they want to be remembered. Identifying this legacy is a crucial part of aging. For many older adults, the family home is a place full of wonderful memories, and can feel like a physical reminder of all they will leave behind. Bringing your parents’ legacy into focus can help them process those memories and feel more comfortable moving on to the next phase of life.
Solie encourages children of older adults to become “legacy coaches.” Ask parents two questions to learn what is important to them:
1. What great understandings or joys have you come to in your lifetime?
2. Do you feel that those are things you would like to continue to have and could share with others to bring them joy and understanding, too?
Next, aging adults must be in control of their decisions. Solie writes that aging adults are already dealing with losses: of loved ones, of motor skills, of memories, of authority and of abilities. They
experience loss of a communal society as people move out, move away and move on. Control is a way of holding on to something, and sometimes the only control they can exercise is to disagree. In his book, Solie suggests strategies for how to “Navigate the No:”
• Use the “plant and wait” technique. Plant the idea and present the information.
• Give your parents time to process. They now get to examine the idea through the lens of their legacy.
• Bring more information forward and ask them if they are ready to have a conversation.
• If they are, begin to present what you know. If not, give them more time to examine their options through the lens of their legacy.
When we give aging adults room to have meaningful conversations, they will, Solie maintains. It is important to start these conversations early and to leave plenty of time for them to happen over weeks, months or maybe even years. To paraphrase Solie, communication is a skill and skills require work and fine-tuning. When you ask the right questions in the right ways, you get meaningful and thought-provoking answers. Being cognizant of your parents’ legacy and their want for personal control can help you turn a difficult conversation into an enjoyable, enlightening and productive one.
Phrase your statement or question to offer aging adults control of their living situation:
Instead of: “Mom, can we talk about when you’ll move out of the house?
Try: “Mom, I sense you don’t like the ideas of selling the house right now. We don’t need to put it on the market anytime soon, but I’d like to hear any ideas you have about where you’d like to live in the future.”
Instead of: “Dad, you can’t go up those stairs by yourself anymore.”
Try: “Dad, have you thought at all about single-story living?”
When you’ve already taken control, give it back by saying: You’re right, in my eagerness to help you move to a safer community, I may have rushed you. What logistics would you like to revisit and talk through?”