3 Challenging Conversations to Have with an Aging Parent

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Have you noticed that things are piling up around the home? Is your mother losing weight? Or your father forgetting to take his medications? Your parents will start to need more help as they age, and talking to them about these sensitive topics can be challenging. However, if you have these difficult conversations before a crisis hits, they will be easier and more productive. Here’s a look at three of the most challenging conversations to have with an aging parent — and how to start them.

Driving

Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean your parents’ driving days are over; however, some of the changes they experience as they age can affect their ability to drive safely.

The older we get, typically the safer our driving becomes. Compared to other age groups, seniors are more likely to wear a seatbelt and drive within normal speed limits. They’re also more likely to be injured or killed in traffic crashes due to age-related vulnerabilities, such as more fragile bones. Medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses also make it more difficult for older drivers to recover from any injuries.

Here are two facts to keep in mind:

  • Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility and limited range of motion restrict senior drivers’ ability to grip and turn the steering wheel, press the accelerator or brake, or reach to open doors and windows
  • More than 75 percent of drivers age 65 or older report using one or more medications, but less than one-third acknowledged awareness of the potential impact of the medications on driving performance

Do you have concerns about a parent driving?

  • Have you noticed your parent get lost on routes that should be familiar?
  • Have you noticed new dents or scratches on their vehicle?
  • Are they overwhelmed by road signs and markings while driving?
  • Do they take any medication that might affect driving safely?
  • Have they had any physical changes that would impair their mobility?

If you have noticed one or more of these, it’s probably time to start having the conversation about safe driving.

Your parent may have already begun to make some changes in their normal driving routines.  They may have already started to recognize and avoid situations where their limitations put them at risk.

While it may not be time to “take the keys away”, compromising on things like driving less after dark, avoiding rush hour or driving in bad weather, and avoiding difficult roads such as highways and intersections, are typically the first step to keeping a senior parent safe on the roads.

Before you bring up an aging parent’s driving abilities, keep in mind that driving is a form of independence, and questioning an older driver can make them defensive. Waiting until mom backs into the garage door with you in the passenger seat to start the conversation probably isn’t best.

Acknowledge that this is a difficult conversation for you to have with your parent, but also acknowledge how difficult it must be for them. Approach the subject respectfully. You can begin the conversation by saying, “How would I best approach you, Dad, if I see that you are less safe on the road?” or, “Mom, I know this must be hard for you, but we need to talk about your driving.”

There are no easy solutions, and this decision affects everyone involved. Focus on maintaining your parent’s independence. With your help, you can keep your parent and others safer.

Finances

If you’re like most adult children, you don’t know much about your parent’s financial situation — from what regular income they have and what expenses they pay each month to where they keep past years’ tax returns and if they have powers of attorney for finances and health care. But as your parents start to cope with declining retirement assets and rising health care costs, you can support their financial independence and avoid family conflicts down the road by having a conversation about their financial condition. And you don’t have to wait until you notice piles of unpaid bills, mistakes in their checkbooks or a mailbox full of donation requests.

Rather than talking about your parents’ situation, discuss your own. For example, say something like, “Mom and Dad, I recently met with a lawyer to draft powers of attorney for financial and health situations so that my spouse can handle things if I’m ever in a situation in which I can’t.” Then ask about what protections your parents have in place. Alternatively, mention an article you’ve recently read about scams targeting seniors and say that can help protect them by monitoring their accounts for unusual activity.

Stress that you don’t need to take over their finances but that you’re available to help lighten their load, develop a spending plan, or interested in getting all the information you need in case they can no longer take care of their own finances.

Isolation and Depression

Noticing that a parent has increasingly become more isolated can be a challenging conversation to approach.

Equally difficult, having a conversation with a parent that is showing the warning signs of depression. Depression in older adults can stem from changes in physical health, loneliness after the loss of a spouse, a dwindling social circle, a reduced sense of purpose or loss of identity.

If you notice your loved one exhibiting signs of depression — including sadness or feelings of despair, loss of interest in socializing or hobbies, lack of motivation and energy, increased use of alcohol or other drugs, and neglecting personal care — start the conversation out gently by asking mom or dad how they’ve been feeling lately. Ask gentle probing questions like, “are you happy with the way life is going right now” or “I know it’s been hard since we lost dad; how are you handling things emotionally?”

If your loved one is physically isolated from others, maybe it’s time to consider moving to a more supportive place where they can experience a sense of community, and even make new friends.

Keep in mind, you don’t need to try to “fix” someone’s depression. You can make a difference just by offering emotional support. You can also help by seeing that your loved one gets an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Sometimes, the more difficult conversations can be the most rewarding. Inviting your parents to discuss these three challenging issues could ultimately protect them from physical and financial harm. Above all, setting up these conversations allows your family to support your loved ones’ quality of life, health and safety.

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