8 tips to navigating “The Talk”

senior and granddaughter

They guided you. They cared for you. And they helped you make important decisions in your life. Now that the roles are about to reverse for you and your parents, discussions around their next stage in life will take patience and courage. It takes open dialogue and empathy.

When you’re ready to start having “The Talk”, consider these tips for a healthy discussion.

TIP #1 Start the conversation gently

Waiting until a parent is ill, disabled or needs to move house can immediately add unwanted pressure, force decisions that may not be ideal, and limit your options. Instead, bring it up while they are still relatively well and able to discuss the future with sound mind.
The best time to start the conversation? Over a morning coffee or during a walk. When our bodies are moving, it’s easier to think with clarity, and the activity diverts the mind from the seriousness of the topic. If a walk isn’t possible, consider driving to a favourite spot to sit, or having lunch at a favourite restaurant. The first discussion doesn’t have to be serious or long. You can simply ask “Have you given any thought to what your next move will be?”

TIP #2 Discover, don’t smother

Make it collaborative and respectful—ideally a mutual process between yourself, your parent and any siblings.Brainstorm. Be curious. Be neutral. Ask a lot of questions. Find out what they want, fear, know or don’t know. Rather than an attempt to find a solution or answer, consider it as a process of discovery done together so that you can lay the foundation for a joint journey that is neither threatening nor intimidating.

Tip #3 Watch your language

Be careful with what you say. Try and use more “I think…”, rather than “You should….” Use phrases like: “What are your thoughts?” “How do you feel about that?” “What would you like to do?”

Tip #4 Ask open-ended questions

Ask questions that generate discussion rather than “yes” or “no” answers. Avoid close-ended questions (those that can be answered with a straight yes or no). Ask questions that require thought and explanation. You’ll learn more about what is REALLY important.

Tip #5 Learn body language

Sometimes, what loved ones say and what they feel may be two different things. Emotions may be running high and there may be fears. But the body is very telling. When you are speaking with loved ones, watch for body signals like averted eyes, frowns, crossed arms or legs, or a stance that is turned away. This can tell you if there is a level of discomfort with what is being said.
At this point, you can either stop and check in, ask if anything is wrong, or subtly move away from the topic. Again, it’s all about ensuring comfort and respect.

Tip #6 Take notes

Come prepared with paper and pen for everyone to write down their ideas, thoughts, decisions or questions for future discussions or thought. Then, you’ll also have a record of what you discussed and what is left to do or decide. Getting everything down in ink helps keep you all on track.

Tip #7 Consider the what-ifs

There are so many of them. Consider all the ‘what if’ scenarios and bring them up in a gentle way. Whether it’s a physical illness, mental illness, a fall, a death or a financial challenge, raising each of these what-ifs can be very difficult. Using reassurance about the present can help: “It’s so wonderful you are still in great health. But what if that changes? Do you have any ideas?”

Tip # 8 Know the options

Educate yourself about independent living vs. assisted living vs. long term care. Know what the options are in your neighbourhood. Take tours. Talk to people. Ask questions. And when you present the information to your parent/parents, do so in an unbiased informative way that outlines the choices, the pros and cons and the possible “next steps.”

While keeping in mind these tips, it is also important to remain respectful. “What do you think?” “How are you feeling about all this?” “How does that sound to you?” These are all examples of respectful statements that enable your parent to contemplate their position and answer honestly. No matter what transpires, getting the conversation started is a big step. Congratulate yourself for that accomplishment, and remember that the next conversation will be much easier for you all.