It might happen little by little, or maybe all at once. On a random day, you’ll look at mom and dad and realize just how much they have aged. While it’s so hard to think about the difficult stuff — and even less fun to talk about it — now is the right time to start some important conversations.
Even the most responsible adult children can become timid when discussing life decisions with formerly high-functioning loved ones, says author Harriet Sarnoff Schiff. In her book, How Did I Become My Parent’s Parent?, Schiff says, “No one likes to look down the road at the likelihood that things will not be at least as good as they are today but will in fact probably be worse.”
Schiff says the most fortunate adult kids are those with pragmatic parents who have already made their plans. If this doesn’t describe you — or even if it does — read on for ideas to kick off some important discussions in your own family.
Are you still safe?
While you never want to underestimate someone else’s abilities, aging’s inevitable decline increases the risks of falling and other household accidents. Take a drive together and talk about whether handing the car is still comfortable for them. Perhaps assess the risk for financial scams by sharing a story about a strange phone call or email you have received and see if they’ve had a common experience. It may help your loved one to know we are all vulnerable from time to time and that we can rely on each other for support.
What are your wishes and expectations when you can no longer care for yourself?
This will certainly be a series of conversations and an understanding that may need to grow over time. Coronavirus has given rise to thoughts of our own mortality, no matter our age, so seize this opportunity and broaden the conversation to include cognitive changes or an unexpected illness or disability. Ask for your parents’ permission to attend doctors’ appointments. Make a list of their medications and update it over time. Rather than assume, ask if they have end-of-life wishes.
Are your wishes captured in a will or trust?
Regardless of assets, a will is necessary to avoid family tension and costly oversights. Start with free and low-cost legal resources to learn your options. It’s important to have a general idea of what arrangements have been made or considered, even if your loved ones are strong and healthy today.
Where are important documents stored?
Over the course of a long life, it’s easy for details to get scattered and papers to be mislaid. A long-forgotten life insurance policy left by a great-grandparent should be accounted for, so offer to help take stock. You may even be rewarded by the discovery of some photos.
What social supports can we help create?
Social isolation increases the risk for poor physical and mental health, and those who spend time with others live longer, healthier lives. Strong social connections are important throughout life, and even more important as we age, so how can you encourage loved ones stay tuned in? Remember to recognize their interests and help them stay connected to experiences they’ll enjoy.
Detroit Area Agency on Aging has many resources to help your loved ones engage in meaningful activities and build strong social networks, so reach out for support and ideas.
For the adult kids: What will you do differently?
You never know what aging is all about until you face it yourself. Apply our conversation starters to your own life and ask yourself what you can do now and in the decades to come to positively affect your own aging experience. Consider how you’ll keep yourself healthy and mobile, how you will build strong finances and how to express your own wishes and expectations for your aging experience — even if you think you’re nowhere near this stage of your life.