If you are lucky enough to gather around the holiday table with multiple generations, aging relatives, and loved ones, consider the kinds of conversations that you may be engaged in or should be having with them at some point during your visit.  Think about whether your conversations should contemplate an aging loved one’s plans for their care and future. How you approach these conversations and how you engage your loved ones in these conversations can spell real relief for them and you in the future.

Understanding how the older adults in your life feel about certain issues – such as where they want to live and what kind of care they would like to receive as they continue to age – can help you provide appropriate support.  Whether you use a friend’s or other family member’s experiences as an example to guide these conversations or you take a much more direct, point approach in your conversations, the following dos and don’ts can offer you guidance in initiating these conversations with aging loved ones.

DO: Ask about these aspects of your aging loved ones’ lives and preferences:

  • Does your aging loved one have an estate plan in place? At a minimum, your loved ones will want to have a durable general power of attorney in place for finances along with a health care power of attorney, living will, and advance directive.  These documents allow a loved one to appoint trusted individuals to help with financial and health decisions if necessary. It may be worthwhile to ask where copies of those documents and other important paperwork can be located and how recently the documents have been reviewed with an attorney. If there isn’t a plan in place or the plan was created a long time ago or your loved one has experienced family or health changes, gently encourage your loved one to reach out to a trusted attorney to prepare a plan that meets that person’s needs.
  • Does your aging loved one have any medical directives with their health providers?  Your loved one may have created a DNR or MOST form with their physicians. Trusted individuals may need to know about these documents and the names of health care providers in order to carry out a loved one’s wishes.
  • Does your aging loved one have a preference for living arrangements as their needs change? Find our whether your loved one wishes to age in place at home or whether a senior living community is a better fit.  Talk about whether the environment is safe and whether the environment can accommodate an aging person’s needs. Some homes need to be adapted to allow walkers and wheelchair accessibility into and throughout the home.  Stairs may need modifications or enhanced lighting.  Consider if bedrooms need to be modified to allow caretakers to stay in the home or to provide accommodations on the same floor as the main living areas. The kitchen and bathrooms may require modifications for easy access. Consider resources to assist with meal preparation, medication management, housekeeping, hygiene needs, and home maintenance like lawn care or repairs. 
  • Does your aging loved one have existing health challenges? Understanding what health challenges they are facing can help you better assist them.  Learn who their providers are and what their health insurance plan provides. Ask your loved one what environment and needs would make their life continue to be worthwhile if they became severely ill, frail, or developed dementia.
  • Does your aging loved one have personal values they wish to be carried out? Learn how your loved one defines a “good life” and see how to ensure that value is carried out for them.  What relationships or support systems do they want or need. Understand your loved ones’ preferences for religious involvement. Ask for their preferences in handling transportation needs or errands if they are unable to drive.

DON’T: Forget to preserve family harmony and respect boundaries:

  • Don’t force these conversations. These conversations can be delicate between younger and older generations and even between moms and sons or daughters and dads. Don’t be aggressive in forcing the conversation if your loved one isn’t interested in having a dialogue. Don’t pick arguments. It may be that your loved one isn’t sure about some of the plans they’ve made or the wishes they have. Or it may be that your loved one is private and doesn’t wish to share that information with you.  Find the right time and place to approach these conversations to allow your loved one the freedom to express their wishes in a safe setting.
  • Don’t take charge if others are already poised to assist. Allow your loved one to guide you by expressing their wishes, and these wishes may not include you. You may want to be “in charge,” but that may not be your loved one’s preference.  If others are appointed to serve in trusted roles, offer your assistance to those individuals without subverting them. Don’t destroy or hide important documents to prevent others from helping family members. Avoid arguments and power struggles.
  • Don’t force your own plan on a loved one. You may have ideas about how a loved one’s plans should be carried out, but you shouldn’t force your own plans on that person.  Try to understand your reluctance to accept their plan. Don’t be the family member who exerts influence over a family member and forces that person to prepare documents that don’t align with their wishes. All too often attorneys encounter family members who have a well-meaning intent to assist a loved one, but the assistance is self-serving; attorneys ethically need to speak with their clients privately to understand and ascertain their clients’ wishes and how those wishes can be carried out.
  • Don’t be uninformed. Be informed about the kinds of decisions that your loved ones may have. Know what resources are available to your loved ones in their community, from elder law attorneys, care agencies, certified senior advisors, and community resources for seniors.
  • Don’t forget compassion. Aging is difficult and can present challenging ideas of mortality.  Just because you may want to have these conversations doesn’t mean everyone is prepared to have these conversations.  Present your ideas or concerns and allow your loved one time to reflect on their wishes.  Ask if there is a better time that you can address those concerns together.

As you approach these conversations, keep it light and take the time to really listen to your loved ones. Once you really understand what your loved ones wish for, then you are in a better position to help them carry out those plans for them and with them.