10 Tips for Talking About the Future with an Aging Loved One

In the wake of a holiday gathering, it may become obvious that an older family member can no longer live safely on their own. Whether itís a specific health condition, or just the effects of aging, a decline in your loved oneís ability to perform daily activities is a sign that itís time to talk about their plans for the futureóbefore disaster strikes.

As a social worker, I have seen families and caregivers, time and time again, fall into a pit of despair as aging crises hit. Rapid and difficult decisions must be made, and families bear the financial and emotional weight of these choices.

There are, however, simple guidelines that you and your family can follow now, proactively, that can help to ease the role transition from adult child to caregiver, from parent to dependent, from partner to provider.

Follow the 10 steps below to begin important and pertinent family conversations and actions:

Hold your breath and jump! Take a chance and start a conversation with your parents or your adult children about health, illness and aging. Use a story in the media, a book, or a television/movie that you recently saw as an introduction. Let your family read/watch the material and talk to them about it a few days later. This will give you a pulse on how open everyone is to these discussions.

Personal = meaningful: If you have a friend or another family member that experienced an acute health crisis recently, share this story with your parent/adult child. Discuss the ways in which this friend’s preparation, or lack of preparation, impacted the family’s coping and overall functioning. Wait and see if your parent/adult child offers to discuss your own family situation.

Ask meaningful questions: Create discussions that enable your parent/adult child to look at their life and the meaning that it has to them. This life review cultivates the relationships within the family, which can help to increase trust and open the doors for communication. Ask questions like, “What has been your most meaningful experience? What are you most proud of? Tell me about the day I was born? What is it like to watch me be a parent? The more you know somebody, the more confident you will be to assist, support and help them make decisions.

Hear their story: Silence is an undervalued communication tool. Do not forget to really listen to your parent/adult child’s story. If you interrupt or try to immediately interpret what your parent/adult child is saying, it can create communication barriers. Make sure to listen and then ask follow up questions to be sure you understand fully what was said.

Be conscious of terminology: The words we use to communicate give us insight into how somebody processes information. Do they use the word death? Die? Deceased? Passed on? Met their maker? Respect that terminology and the distance it may or may not create for that person and that topic. Allow your parent/adult child to protect him or herself with language.

Take your time: If your family is not used to discussing difficult topics openly and directly, things cannot change overnight. Use the aforementioned tips and bite off small bits. Give the challenging topics time to marinate with each member of the family. Follow up every few months until you are satisfied with the depth of conversation.

Remember your history: Each family has their own set of unique communication styles, personal history, cultural influences, generational influences, gender influences, role expectations, etc. Work with what you have. A square peg will not fit in a round hole.

Be honest: Being dishonest will not get your family to a “non-crisis” mode. In fact, if we are not clear about our choices, more confusion and family dysfunction will ensue.

Legal, legal, legal: Discussions are fantastic, and absolutely help with facilitating and following through on your wishes. However, it is necessary to complete the legal paperwork to ensure that everyone’s wishes are met. You can always, at the minimum, just inform your parent/adult child that the paperwork is complete, and to contact the notary or attorney who assisted you in the case of an emergency.

Edit, copy, cut and paste: Conversations about future plans with aging family members may not work the first time or the tenth time. Hang in there. Do some editing and try again.

This article was written by AgingCare.com Expert, Stephanie Erickson, MSW, PSW, LCSW. Stephanie is a clinical social worker specializing in working with seniors and their families.

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Magdalena C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you!

Roberto MARINI
Roberto MARINI3 years ago

I take care of my elderly mother is a wonderful experience

Magdalena J.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you!

Magdalena J.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you!

Angela B.
Angela B4 years ago

Something to think about....thanks

Jean G.
JeanisAWAY G4 years ago

Interesting. Thank You

Sharon Stein
Sharon Stein4 years ago

My mom and dad are still chugging along at 94.....BLESSINGS INDEED!

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson4 years ago


Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen4 years ago

Thank you

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F4 years ago