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How to have tough conversations with your aging parents

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Is it time for my parents to consider assisted living? What warning signs should I look out for when it comes to dementia and other health issues? What legal documents do they need to put in place? How do I navigate our changing relationship?

We are hearing these kinds of questions from listeners and clients more and more as Canada’s population ages, and they are topics we have worked through personally as we care for our own aging parents.

Tackling these concerns is not easy, but the first step is an honest, informed discussion.

Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge, has been working in the field of aging for twenty-five years and saw a gap in this area. She says that there are plenty of books dedicated to the nine months women are pregnant, but she could not find a guidebook for the decades that people may be supporting their aging parents.

So she decided to write one.

Let’s Talk About Aging Parents: A Real-Life Guide to Solving Problems with 27 Essential Conversations addresses four main areas of concern you may have as your parents get older:

  1. Living situations: Does their home need to be retrofitted to help them age in place? Do they need help around the house? When is the right time to consider long-term care and how do I know what the options are?
  2. Mental capacity: How do I know if my parents have a cognitive impairment? Who will make decisions for them when they are no longer able to? What legal documents do we need and when?
  3. Relationships: How do I navigate my changing relationship with my parents? How are their relationships with others changing? How do I cope with caregivers’ guilt?
  4. Health: What warning signs do I need to watch for? What is the best way to get my parents the care they need? When is it time for them to stop driving?

According to Tamblyn Watts, how you approach these conversations with your aging parents is just as important as what you say. Coming to terms with aging and all of the challenges that come with it can be difficult. Your parents may not want to acknowledge that anything is changing, much less talk about it.

If you are struggling to have the tough conversations with your aging parents, here are some of Tamblyn Watts’ recommendations to break the ice:

Get out your calendar. Start building discussions into your regular routine. For example, use tax season as a trigger to talk about finances. Help your parents make appointments with their accountant, wealth advisor, and even their lawyer. Ask questions like: Can they afford the quality of care they want? What happens if they are no longer able to make decisions? How do you properly document their wishes?

A birthday is a great time to have a discussion around health. Schedule annual appointments with your parents’ doctors. Talk about any changes you have noticed in their health. Ask questions like: Are they still able to drive? Are they still able to live independently? If not, what is the plan going forward?

Having a trusted team of professionals – accountants, wealth advisors, lawyers, healthcare providers – that has your parents’ best interests at heart can make all the difference for these conversations. 

While having the time to plan out what to say and when is ideal, it is a luxury that you cannot always count on. Conversations are often triggered by a specific event, for example a fall or a diagnosis. And Tamblyn Watts says that is okay; you are never going to be able to get ahead of everything. However, you can use that event as a lever to address not only the situation at hand, but how your parents want to navigate other aging-related challenges.

One of Tamblyn Watts’ biggest pieces of advice is stop thinking you are the parent. You will always be their child and it might do more harm than good to tell your parents what to do. Instead, try asking them for their opinion. For example, I’m thinking of redoing my will. What are your thoughts? Is your will up to date?

Another way to test the waters is to ask what their friends are doing. If your parents are experiencing health issues and you are wondering if it is time for them to move out of their own home, ask if any of their friends have moved into retirement homes and how they are liking the change.

It is important to be realistic about who your family is. As Tamblyn Watts says, “This isn’t Leave it to Beaver.” If your family disagrees about the best way to handle your parents’ situation as they age, lean on resources like her book to help guide you through it. A good rule of thumb is to play to your family members’ strengths and look at the positives. If you think your brother is sponging off your mom by living in her basement rent-free, remember that his presence may actually allow her to stay in her house safely for longer. And it might free you up to help her with finances or check out the community-based services that are available to you.

There are no hard and fast rules to having tough conversations with your aging parents, but talking early and talking often can help you navigate the complex issues and emotions so that you can go back to making the most of your time with them.

If you are interested in learning more about Let’s Talk About Aging Parents: A Real-Life Guide to Solving Problems with 27 Essential Conversations by Laura Tamblyn Watts, click here

David Popowich and Faisal Karmali are Investment Advisors with CIBC Wood Gundy in Calgary. The views of David Popowich and Faisal Karmali do not necessarily reflect those of CIBC World Markets Inc.

This information, including any opinion, is based on various sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed and is subject to change.

CIBC Private Wealth consists of services provided by CIBC and certain of its subsidiaries, including CIBC Wood Gundy, a division of CIBC World Markets Inc. The CIBC logo and “CIBC Private Wealth” are trademarks of CIBC, used under license. “Wood Gundy” is a registered trademark of CIBC World Markets Inc.

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