COPING WITH AGING PARENTS AND FAMILY DYNAMICS

 Question:

I have three siblings, and we all live in different states. Our mom lives in Fayetteville, and she would like to stay in her home. We all feel she needs more support, but we don’t seem to agree on what that support should involve. We have tried talking it through, but two of my siblings now refuse to speak at all. This is tearing our family apart, and my mom would not approve. What do you suggest?

Answer:

Every family has their ups and downs, and when change occurs, it can bring out those dynamics. Conversations about parents can be particularly challenging, because it is reversing traditional parent-child roles. Past baggage from previous issues can easily taint the discussion. It is very important to have some ground rules for family conversations. It may also be necessary to have a third party (care manager, counselor, social worker, clergy or trusted adviser) mediate.

When key decisions need to be made, emotions tend to run high. It is important to try to remove the emotion, to logically identify possible solutions. I suggest starting family conversations by identifying who the key family members are and how you plan to facilitate the conversation. Family meetings, group emails, conference calls, Skype or other conference call services, including www.freeconferencecall.com, are possible options.

Set a date so everyone has adequate time to prepare. Providing something to each participant in writing, prior to the conversation, may also be helpful. You will need a point person to make arrangements. This can be an agreed upon family member, or you can consider a neutral third party. Outline the key problem or topic of the discussion, just like an agenda. Set a time limit for the conversation, and identify a brief list of the concerns you each have about Mom. Your goal would be to outline the possible resources and solutions. You want to have an end point that you can reach, not just endless discussion. In this case, it is where Mom should live and what support she needs in that environment.

Each person needs an opportunity to express their thoughts and feel like they are being heard. Most importantly, how does your Mom feel? The common ground you all have should be wanting what is best for your Mom. You may not agree on what that is, but if you agree you want her safe, happy and well cared for, then you have common ground. You may want to have one conversation with your Mom to let her talk and have everyone else listen.

A second conversation can take place with just the adult children, and then circle back with Mom to present a united front. What you do not want is for your Mom to feel she is causing friction within the family. You mentioned she wants to stay home, but get to the root of what that means. It may or may not be practical and safe for her to remain at home, but if you all have discussed multiple ideas for increased support, then you can present those options. If your Mom is no longer able to actively participate in these conversations, you will also need to be clear on who has decision-making authority, typically designated in a Power of Attorney document.

As your family goes through this process, remember that you must back up ideas with reality. What does that option cost? What modifications would need to be made? Is this a long-term solution or just getting through the crisis? Fear of change can be very strong and present in many different ways, but if change is necessary, thinking through the next steps and end result can be helpful.

Knowledge is the key to making the best decision, so do your homework. If bringing care into the home or moving to a different setting is a consideration, then know what options are available. Visit local facilities, and talk to other families who have been in similar situations. If you are all busy with kids and jobs and your own lives, get a professional who can help you identify area resources and make concrete suggestions. Home is where the heart is, so wherever your Mom is, make sure it feels like home.

Guidelines for productive family communication:

  • We agree to take turns speaking and not interrupt each other, and everyone will get a turn to talk.
  • We agree to call each other by our first names, not “he” or “she.”
  • We agree to not blame, attack, or engage in put-downs and will ask questions of each other for the purposes of gaining clarity and understanding.
  • We agree to stay away from establishing hard positions and express ourselves in terms of our personal needs and interests and the outcomes that we wish to realize.
  • We agree to listen respectfully and sincerely try to understand the other person’s needs and interests.
  • We recognize that, even if we do not agree with it, each of us is entitled to our own perspective.
  • We will not dwell on things that did not work in the past, but instead will focus on the future we would like to create.
  • Each person should also be prepared with some ideas for solutions to the problem.
  • If you have something you feel you must say, make a note and wait your turn.
  • Work hard to understand what the other person is saying, even if you need to take notes. Be prepared to explain the other person’s point of view.
  • Remember that when we are very emotional, our IQ can temporarily drop 10 to 20 points, so be aware that you may be misunderstanding something if you are extremely emotional about the conflict.
  • Be prepared to explain your feelings, thoughts and needs.
  • Be aware of time limits.
  • Be willing to make some adjustments in your behavior if any are requested.

 Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA is an Aging Life Care Professional, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at amyn@agingoutreachservices.com.

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