Swerving around the potholes of family communication

A troubled middle aged man contemplates

Sooner or later, most of us will l find ourselves in a situation regarding addressing the needs of an elderly family member. Though it is likely inevitable, like a root canal, it is also just as likely the type of thing that most of us put off thinking about, let alone actively dealing with. We are human, and realistically, just the very idea of it can be extremely overwhelming.

Remembering my own experience of such challenges, still makes me shutter. My husband and I were faced with the reality that his mother and, in quick succession, father, would both need varying levels of care. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly. All of the uncertainty and confusion brought forth a feeling of dread. Of course, we were not prepared, and neither were any of his other family members. I wish I had known someone who had already been through it to give me a crash course in maneuvering the many communication obstacles that arise while trying to make hasty decisions as a family. Here are some ideas to help prevent the loss of your sanity or your family relationships.

Conversations can run into the ditch

Trying to effectively communicate and make family decisions in the middle of an emergency can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. At such times emotions tend to run high. Even when well-intentioned, feelings can get hurt, people can lash out when stressed, old issues between family members can unexpectedly rear their head seemingly out of nowhere. Some individuals are more dominant personality types and others, not so much. This can all converge to create a lack of open and rational discussion of the issues at hand at precisely the time that it is needed most.

Head it off at the pass

One of the easiest ways to avoid communication crashes is to be preemptive regarding the subject matter. Speak with siblings or other relevant family members in a group before parents enter this phase of their lives to establish general rules of the road. Start simple with the basics to get things moving forward: 

  • Agree upfront to keep things calm and respectful.
  • Agree upfront to keep the focus on the welfare of the parents.
  • Appoint a secretary of sorts to take notes and recap the meetings.
  • Distribute recaps to all involved at the same time so everyone is up to speed.
  • Agree on a process for communication of ideas and discussions thereof moving forward.
  • Address changes in parents as they arise as a group and adjust topics for discussion accordingly.
  • Agree on a list of basic concerns that can be researched ahead of time, or down the road. Have an open discussion regarding who all wishes to contribute their time and energy or talent to this upfront. This will make it easier when the need arises.

Keep everyone on board

Families are filled with all types. We all have our way of dealing with things and our particular way of communicating. Simply being aware of this and discussing the realities of it in an open and respectful manner can help bring everyone together as opposed to driving them apart. Remember to keep an open mind, an open heart and to maintain an attitude of appreciation for all involved. Most of us do the best we can when faced with a difficult situation.

When to discuss with parents

Decide on a plan for how and when to discuss future care needs with parents (this can vary widely, depending on individual personalities, their current state of health and level of self-sufficiency). For some families, it may make perfect sense for them to partake from the very start. Things to consider:

  • Have parents already brought up the subject matter? If so, what was their attitude? How much thought have they already put into it, if any?
  • If they have not brought it up, discuss the possibility of bringing it up to them. Have an agreed-upon approach and list of questions and issues ahead of time to keep the conversation on track and productive.
  • It is important to respect their ideas and wishes regarding their own future senior community needs and try to ascertain them in advance if possible. This will help to make family communication and planning less fraught with potential uncertainty and disagreement as issues and needs arise.

Simply put: A little planning, a little patience, a little thoughtfulness and keeping the focus on the goal at the beginning of this journey, can go a long way toward making the path down the road a lot less bumpy.

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