“That Conversation”

Talking About the Future with Your Aging Loved Ones:

Principles and Guidelines

In thinking about how to have “that conversation” with an aging loved one, it might be helpful to begin with a hypothetical situation.  Say you have an Aunt Jane who lives alone and more than a hundred miles from you.  You were close when you were young, so you chat with her on the phone for a half hour every two weeks or so.  She sounds great and you enjoy your conversations, though you haven’t seen her in years.  Most of your family has similar interactions with Aunt Jane

It’s your mother’s birthday and the family decides to bring her brothers and sisters together for a party.  You see Aunt Jane for the first time in years and immediately you update your mental picture of her.  She appears to have aged much more than you’d visualized.  But what is more troubling is that your conversations with her during the course of the day get very repetitive.  She does not seem to remember speaking with you on earlier occasions.

A few weeks go by and you can’t shake the feeling of concern.  You decide to take your mother on a visit to see Aunt Jane.  When you arrive, Aunt Jane is thrilled to see you but is surprised that you’re there.  You notice a large pile of unopened mail and can sense that things aren’t right.  After a lovely visit, you mention your concerns to your mother who is equally concerned.  Neither of you had noticed before, but Aunt Jane is starting to slip a little.  For a half hour conversation over the phone, neither of you noticed it.  But having spent some time with her, you begin to suspect that she needs some more help.  She has no children of her own and is a widow, so now as a family you must decide how best to broach the subject.

Sound familiar?  Many of us struggle to realize that our aging loved ones may no longer be able to care for themselves on their own.  Or if they can now, we worry that an accident may happen and that they may not be in a good position to respond to one.  In either case, it’s time to have that conversation with our loved one.  The following principles are things to keep in mind as you prepare for that conversation with ideas to try and help it go as smoothly as possible.

Timing that conversation

As with any conversation where there is a chance that not all parties involved will love it, there is no ready-made ideal time to discuss with aging loved ones their plans for the future.  In the end, the time for that conversation has to be made.  If you truly have your loved one’s best interests at heart, and if you’ve cultivated a good relationship with him or her over time, even if they don’t love having that chat with you, they’ll know that your motives are pure and will work through the discomfort with you.

Choosing a spokesperson

Although there may have been a group involved in deciding whether to have this conversation at all with the aging loved one, it may not be apparently obvious who should be the one to ultimately have that conversation.  No two situations are identical, but here are some things to think about in choosing who should lead out.

A “favorite” loved one might be an ideal choice in some circumstances.  It may be something as simple as the family member or friend who already has regular conversations with the aging loved one.  The fact that issues of day-to-day care may have already been discussed might create a relationship to build on.

On the other hand, that familiarity may be a weakness.  The subject matter can be something easy to minimize or to shrug off if the familiarity allows for it, so perhaps a family member who is close but not too close could be an ideal choice.  A small group of loved ones can decide who will have the best likelihood of getting through and helping the conversation be productive.

One thing.  It’s not an intervention.  The ultimate goal is to find a way to put the aging loved one’s wishes and desires on paper in a way that can be carried out when the time arrives that the loved one may not be able to express those wishes adequately.  Avoid “ganging” up on the person whenever you can.

How to broach the subject

There are many ways the subject can be opened for conversation, and it may take more than one attempt before you accomplish all you would like.

An anecdote

If someone you know or someone that your loved one knows recently went through a transition in life, that might be a good place to start.  For example, “So Aunt Jane, I hear that Frank Adams recently had a stroke and had to spend some time in a rehab facility.  Did you hear about that?  I hear there was quite the hubbub over who was the decision-maker for him.  He was apparently quite out of it for some time before he came to.  Do you have a power of attorney doc or something like that?”

A simple question

We don’t always need to begin with the drastic or discuss the full ramifications of the conversation right from the get-go.  Perhaps a simple question could be sufficient.  “Hey Aunt Jane, I was thinking that if something happened to you I wouldn’t have the first idea of where to find any of your important papers.  Who’s on top of that for you these days?”  It’s a non-threatening way to open up the topic and it can perhaps lead to more discussion.

Be straightforward, but kind

This is the tack that will probably yield the best results but is often the most daunting.  The important thing to remember is that you’re not out to “put your loved one in a home.”  The idea that you want to help them understand is that you want to find a way to make what they want to happen come to be.

For example, “Aunt Jane, I’ve been concerned that if something were to happen to you, we’re not really prepared to make sure that we can make things happen the way that you want.  I’ve heard that without proper documentation you could end up like Terri Schiavo or something and that’s the last thing we want.  Can we chat for a bit and see what kind of documents you have written up so that we can make sure that you’re caught up and that we know exactly what you’d like to have happen in the next few years?”

We’ve seen a lot of success with steering the conversation away from making decisions for the aging loved one and more towards finding ways to ensure that their desires come to pass down the road.  Focusing on that will keep the edge off the conversation and help your loved one feel less defensive.

What to discuss

There may be any number of issues to discuss as you have this conversation with your aging loved one, and it may necessitate having a few conversations instead of just one big one.  Some basics include: whether there is a will that’s been reviewed by an attorney in the past five years; what assets are there and in whose name; who your loved one would like to be involved in helping with financial or medical decision-making; what financial and healthcare plans are in place for the future and whether those plans are sufficient.

Without meddling, you can help your loved one be aware that there are some red flag issues that need to be handled properly.  For example, a common way to assist our loved ones with their shopping or day-to-day finances is to add a helper to a checking account, either as a full accountholder or as a signer.  Either option can have ramifications for an estate plan that might frustrate a larger goal.

Shupe & Associates, P.C. can help ensure that your loved one’s estate plan is current and that those steps that you have taken to help make their life as easy as possible work seamlessly with whatever planning is in place for their future.  There may also be public benefits available to ease the financial burden that increasing costs of healthcare bring about.  Shupe & Associates, P.C. can also help navigate those benefits and help your loved one qualify.

We hope to have given you some food for thought that should help in having “that conversation.”  Contact Shupe & Associates, P.C. for a free consultation for more guidance about having “that conversation” with your aging loved one.  Once you’ve had that conversation, contact us to make an appointment for another free consultation to review with your loved one the plans that they have in place and see how we can help ensure that their desires are met.


Danial Shupe

Shupe & Associates, P.C.