Aging parents and their children need to have 'the talk'

Following "The 40-70 Rule" can help families make decisions about care for elders

November 04, 2010|Susan Reimer

"What are we going to do about mother?"

If you haven't had that conversation with your siblings, you will, and it will be one of the toughest conversations you ever have.

Then you will have to have that conversation with your mother, or father, and that will certainly be the toughest of them all.

It makes sense not to wait for a crisis — a bad fall, an auto accident, a wandering off. The best decisions aren't made when everyone is in a tizzy.

So? When?

Home Instead, which provides nonmedical home care and companionship services for seniors, has put together a booklet titled "The 40-70 Rule." When you are 40, or when your parents reach the age of 70, it is time to start thinking about the next phase of their lives and putting some things in place.

It is a clever booklet, because if you read it backwards, it becomes "The 70-40 Rule," and it gives talking points to seniors who want to remain assertive when dealing with their pushy children.

The information is based on a survey of adult children with aging parents, and the "script," for want of a better word, is written with the help of a gerontology expert who has done research on communication and aging.

There is plenty of advice on talking to your parents about money, driving, medications, nutrition, cleanliness, safety and, for heaven's sake, dating.

But if there is a central piece of advice, it is this: Don't rush to judgment. Take time to observe, ask gentle questions and take in the whole picture.

And while you need to let go of the parent-child communication model, things won't go well if you suddenly take on the role of the bossy parent. Talk to your parents as peers. Make the conversation about you, not about them. You are concerned, you were wondering, you thought you'd check.

For your parents, the goal will almost certainly be independence and the opportunity to remain in the home where they might have lived for many years. Do your homework, because there are plenty of services available to help that happen: meals, drivers, house-cleaning or hygiene help, and medication alerts.

And with the aging of baby boomers and the inadequate number of senior living centers, there will almost certainly be more and more of this kind of in-home help.

But there is another side to this conversation, and it is the parents' side. The advice to seniors is to be assertive with your children, but not aggressive. Be firm, but not defensive. Put yourself in your children's shoes and try to understand their concerns.

And take a moment to survey your weaknesses and find the help you need, or ask for it.

Perhaps the most difficult conversation for both parents and children is the one concerning advanced directives.

End-of-life decisions and funeral preferences are not a fun topic. But the suggestion here is to make it a simple checklist, and fill one out along with your parents. All of us should have such things down on paper, after all.

I have been through the end of life with both of my parents and both of my husband's parents. You can't plan a death the way you plan a wedding, but I can say that I have no regrets. That would be an unbearable burden for the living, I think. I just miss everybody. A lot.

Take all the advice that is out there on negotiating these transitions without tears or pain or a huge family fight that lingers like a 10-year hangover.

And remember this: Your parents only die once. Don't screw it up.

To obtain a copy of "The 40-70 Rule," find a Home Instead franchise near you by visiting

    Baltimore Sun Articles
    Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.