Bob Horrocks: Communication is key in caring for an aging parent


“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters”

— Dau Voire

Talk is cheap; it’s failing to communicate with each other than can be so costly.

Here’s what I mean. Have you heard of a family who fought bitterly over how to care for their aging parents? About siblings who argued themselves into resentment or estrangement, discussing who should care for Mom? Or about a parent who felt disrespected when their own needs and wants weren’t considered? Communicating and making decisions as a family can be difficult – but it’s vitally important to avoid distress and preserve relationships.

In some conversations about caring for our parents, communication takes some courage. Broaching an emotional or controversial subject can make the palms sweat and the heart beat briskly. Imagine telling your parents that you feel it might be time for them to relinquish their driver’s license, or to consider moving into assisted living. These are the moments when, as adult children, we must do what’s best or what’s necessary, despite our own breaking heart.

As experts in aging, my staff is often involved in helping families navigate these difficult waters, so year after year we’ve learned through experience what approaches are most successful. When it’s time for your family to discuss such a difficult subject, here are a few pieces of advice that may help:

• Start with a family meeting. Invite your parent or elder loved one to participate, as well as those who are affected by the situation or who will be affected by the outcome of the meeting. Schedule the gathering in advance at a time that’s convenient for all. In other words, don’t bring it up at a holiday celebration. Just because people are present doesn’t mean they are prepared. Whenever possible, arrange to hold the meeting in a neutral location, rather than in a family home. Bring copies of a simple written agenda that lists the situation(s) to be discussed, and remind the group at the beginning of the meeting that the goal is to discuss and brainstorm solutions for that situation alone. Sometimes it’s useful to invite a neutral party to facilitate the meeting, such as a clergyman, social worker or counselor. And perhaps, in a gentle and friendly way, you can remind the group that because everyone cares deeply about each other, strong opinions about the best course of action may arise. While disagreements are normal, it’s important for the meeting to remain focused and positive.

• Once everyone understands the situation to be addressed, work together as a family to brainstorm solutions. One easy way to keep things positive is to recognize each individual’s talents and abilities and how those can be useful. And at the same time, encourage each family member to be honest about their limitations. For example, it might be unreasonable to expect a stay-at-home parent with three small children to be available to spend the evenings with your older loved one. But perhaps he or she could offer help in another way, such as providing rides to daytime medical appointments while others are working.

• Ask a family member to take notes throughout the meeting. After the meeting, use these notes to write a written plan that elaborates on what was decided and agreed to by all. It is helpful to realize that because family members’ schedules and life circumstances may change, the plan itself may need to change over time. But having successfully worked together as a team to create an initial approach, hopefully it will be easier to discuss modifications as they arise.

This approach for a family meeting is fairly simple, and perhaps that’s because I have focused on the action steps to take. But did you notice that I avoided what can be the most difficult step of all? Having that initial conversation with your parent about relinquishing the keys, learning about their wishes on end-of-life decisions, or considering new living arrangements can be daunting. Because we dread those conversations, many adult children avoid them. In my next column, I’ll share with you some advice from our on-staff aging experts about finding the courage to have that first difficult conversation.

My staff at SourcePoint has a wealth of knowledge and expertise, which is available to you with a simple phone call to our office or by visiting our website. If you are caring for an older parent and need some support, call us and ask to speak with Sara Stemen, our caregiver program coordinator. She can listen and offer advice and resources to help – like our caregiver support groups and classes, and referrals to resources which can help you and your family. You can reach us at 740-363-6677, or

Bob Horrocks

Contributing columnist

Bob Horrocks is executive director of SourcePoint.

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