Starting the Talk

As we grow older, losing our independence and giving up control over our lives is a big fear. If you feel your family member would benefit from assistance or possibly a move to an assisted living community, it's a subject that should be handled delicately.

Let's start with a few tips on how to start the conversation:

It's never easy to talk to a parent or family member about their potential need for additional help. However, ignoring the situation won't make it go away. These conversations will go much easier for everyone involved if you take a little extra time to do some planning before sitting down to talk.

It All Begins Much Sooner Than You Might Think

Do you know your parents' wishes and plans for the future? If not, plan to find out today, while things are going well for them, rather than waiting for a health crisis followed by hasty decisions. By knowing their wishes, you'll be better able to help your family member live life the way they want. Start by giving them a list of your questions or concerns, then schedule a time for the talk. This helps them maintain control and prepares them by considering, in advance, the kinds of help they may need or want in the future.

What Are the Important Signals to Be Aware Of?

Older adults have highly sensitive radar that's tuned in to the signals we send when we're about to tamper with their control over their future. Keep in mind that you're partnering with your family member to solve a particular need or issue in their lives. You're not taking a one-sided approach, telling them what to do or what is best. Your signal to them needs to be genuine and communicate collaboration - that you're on their side.

Remember these things when preparing for an easy and productive conversation:

  • Sit in a relaxed position, facing your family member. This shows they have your attention.
  • Indicate ease and openness by keeping your hands folded on your lap - not crossed, which indicates authority and dominance.
  • Relax your shoulders to appear more open. Hunched-up shoulders indicate a tightness and unavailability.
  • Breathe deeply. This will slow your pace and help calm both of you.
  • Keep a notebook. Record details from the conversation and any new ideas or comments that you discussed or decided. On a regular basis following these conversations, refer to your notes to check for patterns.

Consider this approach:

  • Give your family member time to get comfortable. Hurrying them will only cause anxiety and mistrust.
  • Let your agenda go, and listen with your full attention.
  • Don't rush. Wait for them to gather their thoughts. Silence serves a great purpose. Indicate with your body language that you're "all ears" and eager to hear more. Exaggerated urgency will only make them feel guilty and frustrated.
  • Speak in terms of questions, not answers.
  • Choose the right words so your meaning is clear and supportive.
  • Let the conversation flow. There's no need to fill the voids. Pause is good.

Watch for these signals as the conversation progresses:

  • Is your family member attentive? Are arms crossed in front indicating closure, or relaxed and held at the sides, indicating openness? Give them time to ease into the conversation.
  • Do you get a long pause after you ask a question? This could indicate your family member is looking back in an attempt to prepare for the future - remembering and assigning importance to these memories. This process is important. Allow them time. Listen and say nothing, but be attentive.
  • Does your family member seem unsettled? Watch for these signals: clearing the throat, fiddling with hair or beard, pulling at skin, wringing hands. This may indicate the heartfelt material you're discussing is being processed, but not fully understood. Help them understand, but don't push.
  • Drop the subject if, when asking a question, your family member gives a response that invites no further conversation.
  • Do you get an explosive response? You may have intruded on a private matter. Drop the subject.

Asking the Right Questions the Right Way

There's a right way and a wrong way to ask questions about sensitive subjects. Ask the wrong way, and you'll come across as insensitive. Doing so might make future communication even more difficult. Here are some suggestions for dealing with delicate topics:

Approach the subject indirectly:

  • Mom, I know you're taking a lot of pills. How do you keep track of them? Would it help if you had someone to remind you when to take your medication?
  • Bill says his dad has given up his car. Have you thought about how you'd get around if you could no longer drive?

Be direct, but non-confrontational:

  • Dad, you seem a little unsteady on your feet. What we can do to help protect you from falling?
  • Mom, if you ever decided you no longer wanted to live alone, where would you want to live?

Watch for openings:

  • Aunt Jane, you said you were having problems reading the newspaper. Now that you no longer drive, do you have someone to take you to the eye doctor?
  • Pops, last week you told me you were having trouble turning the handles on the water faucets. How are you managing with the shower?

Share your own feelings about your family member's changing life:

  • You've always been so independent, Dad. I imagine it's hard for you to ask for help now. But if it were readily available, what kinds of things would you like help with?
  • Aunt Susan, I know you must be bored alone in the house all day with me at work. Wouldn't it be nice to be around other people and have interesting things to do?

Dealing with Resistance

Be prepared for your family member to resist any suggestion that their independence may be diminishing. They may be offended, telling you to mind your own business, or they may dismiss your concern with reassuring statements, preferring to pretend that life is as normal as it always was for them. In such situations, experts advise:

  • Respect their feelings if they make it clear they want to avoid the subject. Make a mental note to return to the conversation at a more suitable time.
  • Push the issue if health or safety is at risk, yet recognize their right to be in charge of their own life.
  • If you decide you must intervene, act firmly, but with compassion: Dad, we can't ignore this any longer; we must deal with this situation.
  • Involve other people your family member respects, such as a family friend, attorney or minister.
  • Hold a family meeting so everyone can discuss concerns and develop a mutually agreeable plan.

Once your family member has agreed to at least consider the idea of seeking additional help, research your options carefully and learn everything you can about what life will be like there for your family member, if a move is the answer.

(Resources: The following references were used in preparing this information: Loverde, Joy. The Complete Eldercare Planner, Updated and Revised, 2009, Random House. Solie, David, M.S., P.A. How To Say It To Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 2004.)