Kim Elliott, RN, Expert on Healthy Aging

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17 December 2018

As the holiday season approaches, many of us are excited to visit with our parents and extended families for the celebrations. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a senior parent, it might surprise you to see changes in them that you haven’t noticed before. It might further shock you that your siblings don’t see the same issues surrounding an aging parent as you do.

If you live a great distance from your parent’s home, you may only be able to visit them a time or two a year, at best, while a sibling in the same town as your parent sees them regularly. Therefore your perceptions of your parent’s health may differ. As the person coming in with fresh eyes, you may see signs that your siblings do not.

While difficult, it’s important to have a conversation with siblings and explain the signs that you see. No one would claim this conversation is easy to begin, even under optimal circumstances. It’s important for siblings to be open and honest with each other about their thoughts and concerns on their parent’s health and safety. Each sibling should try to understand the others’ points of view because the end goal is always the same: you want what’s best for your parents. However, making decisions and care plans is much easier when families are united in their beliefs about what’s best.

It’s an emotional conversation, but it’s important to point out facts and the changes you see. If you see physical, cognitive, habitual or sensory changes, I suggest discussing it with your siblings. If they see your loved ones daily, or on a regular basis, things like weight loss or grooming may not be as impactful for them until pointed out.

Siblings shouldn’t hide these conversations from their parents. In fact, mom and dad need to be a part of the dialogue. But it’s important to avoid emotionally-driven conversations about caregiving for your parents. A scheduled family meeting with a pre-approved agenda can help families gather their thoughts and concerns as well as offer solutions.

Frame the conversation so that your parent is in control and doesn’t feel interrogated or attacked. The most important question is: What are your long-term goals and how can we support them? Asking the right questions will give you a better sense of how your parent is handling day-to-day tasks, and give them an opportunity to identify areas where they may need more help.

For example:

  • Can you walk me through your medications and tell me when you take them?   
    • This will help you understand what medications your parent is taking, if they are taking them as prescribed or if the medications are expired.
  • What do you usually eat for dinner?
    • This will help you get a sense of their diet and if they are able to prepare a meal for themselves.
  • What do you typically do on a Saturday?
    • This will help you identify any changes in your parent’s social behavior.

Once you identify areas where your loved one may need more help, talk through solutions. Start each conversation with “I know you…” which empowers your loved one and recognizes their goals. End it with a solution to an issue they are struggling with.

For example:

  • I know you want to stay in your house, and you said you’re having trouble keeping up with the housework. Let’s look into hiring a cleaning service to help with chores.”
  • I know your goal is to stay healthy, but I am concerned about you taking your medication properly. I’ve researched some home health options that might make this easier on you.”
  • I know you want to stay social, but you’ve been isolated in your house for months. Let’s tour senior living communities in the neighborhood to see if any feel like a good fit.”

If there is a lot of disagreement over appropriate next steps, it might be a good idea to invite a neutral third party to participate in these discussions. Counselors or advisors can offer an objective point of view.

Before heading home for your holiday visit, download Brookdale’s checklist of signs and tips for starting conversations about long-term goals and care. Sometimes there’s no avoiding difficult decisions, but when all the parties who are involved in the care of a parent are in agreement, it can make the hard decisions a little easier on the entire family. 

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