As families prepare for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah, they’re not just cooking food and decorating their homes—they’re scheduling time to spend together. With everyone present and accounted for, families may use some of their time to talk about senior living options. How can families ensure the experience is positive for everyone involved?
Carla Sutter, director of operations for the SYNERGY HomeCare franchise system, which maintains services in Broadview Heights, Ohio; Madison Heights, Michigan; and Rochester, Michigan (among others) and author of “Where Do We Begin? A Guide to Elder Caregiving,” shares her insight into these critical conversations.
Your Family’s Legacy of Communication
First, it’s important to understand what Sutter calls the “legacy of communication” in your family. Some families have a history of open communication about topics such as health and finances, while others consider these subjects out-of-bounds.
“The legacy of communication helps guide families to know what types of expectations have been set,” says Sutter, who is also a certified advanced social work case manager. “It doesn’t mean you have to follow the same pattern, but accept that if you go outside the pattern, there will be resistance.”
If your family’s communication is more private, and you’ve never broached subjects like your parents’ retirement funds or their end-of-life wishes, you’ll need to carefully consider your timing before diving in.
Timing Is Everything
Though the holidays may seem like an ideal time to tackle these crucial conversations, Sutter recommends families proceed with caution.
“You don’t want to be seen as hijacking the turkey dinner,” she says.
That’s particularly true if you live far away, you haven’t seen each other since last year’s festivities, and you have a limited amount of time to visit. If you only have one or two days to spend together, don’t expect to make all the senior living decisions right then and there, says Sutter. Instead, make it more of an “assessment” visit than a “decision” visit.
“The holidays are a great time to start conversations,” she says. “You’re opening a gift but not putting it all together yet.”
Holiday Conversation Tips
Sutter offers several guidelines to help families engage in healthy conversations about senior living options this holiday season.
Take the indirect route.
To get senior living conversations started, Sutter recommends bringing up stories of a neighbor or friend to see how your parents react to different scenarios. That way, you’ll have a sense of where they’re coming from and how they feel about various issues. Try not to ask direct questions so they won’t become defensive.
Ask about their goals.
Sutter shares a story of an older man with two goals: to stay in his house and to care for his wife who had advanced Alzheimer’s. In the meantime, he was busy performing labor-intensive activities such as yard work and snow removal to keep the house operational. Sutter asked, “Can you tell me how some of those tasks you’re doing are ensuring your goals can be maintained?” The gentleman realized if he were to get hurt, his wife would be unable to call 911, and their children lived too far away to intervene. After Sutter echoed his words and goals back to him, he decided to enlist the help of home care a few times a week.
Involve trusted advisors.
Senior living conversations within families are necessary, but don’t be afraid to invite an outsider to join the discussion. If there is an important person in your parents’ life—someone who plays a major role in their decision-making—invite him or her to the holiday table and subsequent meetings. Whether your parents connect with their pastor, rabbi, physician, or lawyer, get that person involved in the conversation. “We’re willing to listen differently when it’s an outsider,” says Sutter.
Practice what you preach.
Your parents aren’t the only ones who should have life planning documents in place. Anyone over the age of 18 can have a will, a power of attorney, an advance directive, and more. “The same things we’re asking of them, we have to do ourselves,” says Sutter. “You will have more leverage if you talk about your own experience.”
Be patient and realistic.
Even though Sutter’s family has a legacy of open communication, she says it still took three years of dialogue to get her parents to remove their scatter rugs, and five years to get her dad to give up driving. “You have to do it in bits and pieces,” she says, calling these conversations a “drip campaign” that involves giving information, putting out hints, understanding your parents’ goals, and offering options.
The holidays can be a wonderful time to not only enjoy the company of family and friends, but also to begin important senior living conversations. With sensitivity and careful planning, it can be a positive experience based on collaboration and mutual respect.
CHIME IN: What are your goals for senior living conversations this holiday season?