Just starting on this path

When things start to get wonky.

You may not even notice the first small signs that one or both of your parents are going to need your

help soon. These little moments might include:

  • A noticeable loss or gain of weight.
  • Their home and/or pets look unkept or neglected.
  • Household repairs go unnoticed or unfixed.
  • They don’t walk as fast as they once did and can’t keep pace with you.
  • They seem to have unusual changes in their mood or behavior in public and/or private.
  • They sleep a lot more than they once did, or at unusual times.
  • They seem to (overly) trust people just recently met, or bring on new personal financial, legal, or medical advisors.
  • They’ve abandoned friends and connections with other family members.
  • They often and suddenly change plans or seem increasingly indecisive.
  • Appearance and hygiene deteriorate – they might even start to stink.
  • Medications seem to be piling up and not being used.
  • They forget birthdays, and important family dates.
  • They seem generally lethargic and disinterested.
  • They can’t keep a conversation going at length any more.
  • Their cars start acquiring dents and dings, inside clutter outside dirt.
  • Mail (snail mail or email) and bills start going unpaid.
  • Utilities start getting shut off.
  • And more.

Little things can creep up unnoticed by you and them. Just one or two of the things in the above could be a signal that your parents are going to need some outside support now or quite soon.

Our eyes and ears can be the most important tool to use at this early stage. As the saying goes, never assume. Don’t disregard what you’re seeing and hearing, just because your parents deny things or take offense at your noticing. Look and listen to verify the reasons for shifts that might be occurring. If you’re unsure, ask other family members or their friends about their observations. Be specific when discussing the things you’ve noticed that seem to be different or off.

Don’t jump to immediate conclusions – like thinking they’ve got dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s important to note that not everyone gets this disease or these conditions. There are actually nearly 100 different types of issues that can cause some form of moderate to severe cognitive shifts.

It’s important, at this point, to take time to simply observe and make note of any changes. This will help you and them and keep your family from getting knocked off their feet or caught off guard should something more dramatic happen.

This next step can be more difficult than either of you might expect.

But it doesn’t have to be.

It’s “the big talk.”

If you’ve never talked with your parents about their, or your own life care needs, this step might be a bit more difficult than anticipated. Especially if they were controlling, or “hover parents” in the past.

Here are a few steps to help you, your parents, and family members, plan for what’s next. The goal of these discussions should be to start building a foundation of desires for you both want or would like to see happen, including how and maybe where they want to spend their later years.

What’s the right time and how do you start?

Keep this phase light and easy. Don’t just jump in with the attitude of “I’m here to be your guardian and savior!” That just may blow up in your face. Start with and state your desire to help them. Keep it short and then just shut up and listen to what they want.

Then, guide the rest of your conversation with open-ended questions. This will give you the opportunity to hear what they want, might need. From here you can start to figure out if you’re on the right track. Then you can start determining whether you’ve got the support you need to help fulfill their wishes.

Do this part right and you will increase the trust you’ll have in each other going forward.

Tip #1: Expect that things will get bumpy at the beginning, the middle and even the end of your journey.

There is no such thing as “perfect” in any family’s care journey together. Give yourself room to work together with your parents so that their care does not become a burden of time, emotional baggage, or financial resources on you, or them. Learn to accept that and look for the moments of joy, laughter, tenderness, and even strength together. You’ll be glad you did.

Key questions to ask:

  • Do my actions express my gratitude for everything my parents have done for me, without sounding trite, frightened, or unsure of myself?
  • What challenges did my parents face while caring for their own aging parents? What emotional upheavals did they go through along the way?  
  • What financial challenges did they face while caring for their own parents? How did it impact the relationship with other family members.  
  • Ask what they worry about regarding their own aging years ahead.

Tip #2:  Have some fun. Make a game of the discussion. 

Not everyone will be comfortable discussing their life care needs, even with an adult child, spouse, or spiritual or personal advisor.  Some of us think even mentioning the subject of “what if” pushes us closer to death, sooner than expected.

Either way, try to look at things from their side. It may be helpful to start with a casual, non-threatening approach, perhaps over a shared meal or during a family gathering.  You can even turn the conversation into a game, of sorts, where everyone around the table creates the most outlandish wish for how they want to be cared for, if they can’t do so for themselves. 

Example: A friend and her husband did this with her adult children on a long car ride to a summer vacation home.  It was a family affair that got really creative. The conversation alone created lots of laughs and some great memories, and now they all have an idea of what each family member wants.  Better yet, the conversation began, and no one is afraid to talk about the Big Hairy Audacious life issues among themselves or with their parents.  I got a note back saying, “Thank you, Nancy, for making this fun and getting us started!”  Glad to help 😊.

Questions to include.  

  • Where do they want to live for the remainder of their life? Do you, or they expect to eventually move into a care facility, or nursing home? Is their desire to remain living at home, no matter what? (Note: over 80% of people want to remain in their own home until they pass.  This can usually be done with the right planning and support.)
  • What about money?  If I run out, what do I want to happen – if I have a choice? 
  • What do my siblings want?

Tip #3:  Get organized, together: or alone at best. 

Learn where all their legal documents are stored.  Get copies and take time to review and understand what’s been stated and the reasoning behind their decisions. If their legal documents haven’t been updated in the past five to eight years (at most), get them to update and validate them. Wills and Trusts can be considered null and void if not properly executed and updated as your parent’s needs and assets shift. If they’ve moved to another state since these were first created, that is another good reason to ensure everything is properly executed and in one place you can find, when needed.

I suggest you share your own Will and/or Trust details with your parents so that they know what your wishes are, should something happen to you, before they pass.  It’s incredibly heartbreaking for a parent to lose a child, at any age, and you want to make things easier for them too, should your time be up first.  This is part of the empathy thing – some of us are better at this than others.  

Tip #4: Get yourself emotionally prepared.

This is the tough one.  Yes, emotions can be helpful, but can cause a trainwreck if you’re unable to keep your head and heart focused on what needs to be done, and when.  

It’s tough to predict how you’ll feel when that day comes. It’s also likely to start slowly versus on a specific day – although that happens too.  At the very least, think through how you might react when they start to need your helpWill you be stressed, exhausted, fearful, or happy to jump in and keep everyone’s life as happy as possible? 

Hint:  if you’re working full-time or even part-time, your emotional state may very well impact your work and your peers. There’s really no way to totally avoid this.  Think through how you’ll take your emotionally charged self to work and how to get support, without looking “needy.” 

Now’s the time to reassure yourself that you’re up “for the job,” or consider alternatives.  

When considering your emotional state:

  • Be honest with yourself about concerns you may have in being able to support your loved ones emotionally, physically, and financially.
  • Consider how and where to get additional support through this time.
  • Sharpen your insight into your parents’ concerns now, so you don’t go down a negative soul-sucking path. 
  • Listen to your own emotional gut now, and whether you really want to take on the responsibility.  

Tip #5: Get started, now… don’t wait… “Just do it!” 

Begin!  Think of this conversation as essential to ensuring their well-being, as well as your own. This process will also help create some solid footing for your own emotional strength going forward.  

Your first discussions are going to be a bit messy.  No one’s perfect.  You may open a can of worms, or you may find it goes better than you imagined.  Doing something means you could fail, but you could also succeed. Doing nothing means you may not fail, but you will never succeed.

By choosing the right time and place, approaching the conversation with empathy and gratitude, and encouraging open and honest communication, you can create an environment in which your parents, and you, will feel comfortable discussing the “what ifs” as they come up, along the way.  Believe me, they will!

Remember, the goal at this point is not to have all the answers, but to lay the groundwork for future conversations and assure their confidence in you, and your own confidence in how you’ll manage their care, well. 

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