On Aging Relatives
At some point, you realize that the relatives you thought as a kid were all-knowing, ceases to be. Then comes another point where the actual roles reverse: you need to be in control and they are in the receivership. Most of the time, it’s our own parents, but it maybe grandparents, aunts and uncles, or older siblings. Whomever it may be, it is difficult for both parties to acknowledge and accept the changing roles. Being related means you carry emotional baggage that tends to interfere with this already sensitive situation. My friends and I are all around that age where this role reversal is starting to happen. Here are some hints we gathered from trying to support each other.
- Context: It’s good to have a reason or an excuse why you are bringing it up with them. In my case, I asked for a meeting to specifically discuss retirement and other issues because of our move to Denmark, and we wanted to have some affairs in order. (If they think it’s more for you, then perhaps it’s more palatable.)
- Preparation: We prepared before the meeting. We read articles and books about how children can best deal with their parents plan for the next phase of their lives. We found When Roles Reverse: A Guide to Parenting Your Parents to be useful. It contained a list of 50 questions that should be answered. The questions ranged from “when is the last time you talked with your parents about their plans for the future?” and “what specific plans has your family made for a sudden parental illness or emergency” to “are your parents still driving (and should they be)?” and “what are the name and phone number of family minister, priest, or rabbi?”
- Meeting: We realized we can’t just talk. So we used the 50 questions as a framework for the meeting (and by we, I mean, my husband and I, because your own parents behave better with the son-in-law around). We told them that it would help us to know their situation and that we have these questions we can discuss with them. We presented it as a starting point, so they didn’t feel defensive if they didn’t have answers yet. We also made sure that they knew they didn’t have to agree at this point, that it was more important to express their opinion to us first. To prevent arguments, we agreed on a few of ground rules: 1) no talking over each other: if you want to speak, put your hand up (yup, roles have reversed…), 2) no judging of each other’s opinions, and 3) after answering each of the questions, we pause so that we can jot down the answers (which also worked as a “cool off” period if the discussions got heated).
- Homework: After we went through the 50 questions (which took us 2 sessions of about 2 hours each), we came up with specific questions we should have answers to, or work towards getting the answers. For example, names of people they want notified if one of them passed on, and their contact information.
- Followup: We asked them to start collecting all the relevant information in a binder. We checked in periodically on the phone to specifically go over their progress (vs. our regular calls).
The meeting went as well as it could have. The questions gave us a starting point for my parents to be able to express things they haven’t had the chance to in our normal conversation. While parts of the conversation got tense, they realized our insistence to go through the questions came from a place of compassion. I am sure things will continue to get more challenging, but at least we started off on a good foot.