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Here's how to start the tough conversation with an aging loved one

A photo of two people sitting on a bench in front of water, one is older with white hair, and one is younger with a bald head. The younger person is Black and the older person is white.
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Starting conversations about increased care needs with an aging loved one can be difficult, but there are strategies for how to do it.

Many families will be gathering this holiday season. And some will notice that an aging loved one is not doing so well and may need help.

Care providers say they get more calls at this time of year with questions about how to step in, including how to talk about things like when to stop driving, when to hand over the checkbook or when to move.

Amy Goyer is AARP’s family and caregiving expert and she's navigated a lot of these difficult conversations.

"I've been a caregiver, really, my entire adult life," Goyer says. And she has some tips.

1. Talk early and often

The more you’ve discussed and planned for the future, the easier it will be when it is time to make decisions. Don't wait until there's a crisis, Goyer says, and start with hypotheticals.

"For instance, if you're worried about your parent's living situation say, 'OK, you know you live on a five-acre-land and it’s a lot of work, and if there comes a time when it’s a little bit too much for you, let’s talk about what the options are,'" she says.

And have those conversations often, Goyer says, because situations change.

2. Timing matters

Where, when and how you bring up these conversations is also important.

“Not a good idea to bring up an intense conversation when someone’s tired," Goyer says. "So pay attention to your loved one’s rhythms — are they better in the morning or the evening?”

For some people, she says it might be easier to start a tough conversation at the dinner table, or over a glass of wine. Others may be more receptive while taking a walk or doing something active.

3. Do your homework

Before you start one of these conversations, do your homework and spend time observing.

“Saying broadly you’re not a good driver anymore is not going to help anybody," Goyer says. "But if you say, ‘Mom, I noticed you have a lot of dents and dings on one side of the car. You know, it seems like maybe your vision might be impaired, let's get that checked.' Or if you're noticing close calls, close accidents, getting lost."

Goyer says to take note of those things so you can provide specifics as to why it may be time for them to hand in their keys.

More from Brave Little State: How can older Vermonters ‘age in place’?

4. Have options and alternatives to suggest

Goyer says never bring up a change unless you have realistic alternatives to offer. For example, if the subject is driving, she says you'll want to be able to say, “Here's how we're going to use Uber or Lyft … you know, here's how we're gonna use neighbors and friends and volunteers. Here's where I'm going to take you. Or you're going to live in a place that has transportation.” 

If you believe your aging loved one needs support at home, be ready to explain who could help and how it could be paid for. If you believe your loved one should move, investigate housing options, costs and locations, as well as activities, meals and services offered there.

5. Be respectful

Remember, you're all on the same team.

“We're not trying to take over somebody's life," Goyer says. "And we're not talking to someone like they’re a child. You know, the biggest mistake you can make is talk about and think that you're parenting your parents.”

Your roles may be changing, she says, but you don't become their parent: "And if you talk to them like you are, they're not going to respond very well. You wouldn't either."

Instead, Goyer says try to frame your conversations around caring, support and empathy.

“Change is hard for people, no matter how old you are," she says. "Listen to them and validate what they're feeling. Ask them what their fears are. Ask them, you know, how they feel about a situation? 'Do you ever feel like you really liked to have a little bit more help around the home? Or do you ever feel unsafe?'"

6. "I" statements help

Make it a conversation and use lots of "I" statements.

"Instead of saying YOU shouldn’t be driving try: 'I'm concerned Mom, I'm concerned about your safety, I'm concerned that you might hurt someone else, you know, I worry about you,'" Goyer says.

And if you’re still struggling, she says sometimes the right people at the table can make all the difference. Which is why she says it may be important to include a certain family member your loved one listens to, or a respected adviser such as a lawyer, doctor, faith or community leader or friend.

An objective third party like a care manager, counselor, or elder care mediator might also help.

These discussions are so hard, Goyer says, because they’re emotional for everyone and they’re about loss. Which is why she says it’s so important to keep love and respect at their heart.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or reach out to reporter Nina Keck:


One in five Vermonters is considered elderly. But what does being elderly even mean — and what do Vermonters need to know as they age? I’m looking into how aging in Vermont impacts living essentials such as jobs, health care and housing. And also how aging impacts the stuff of life: marriage, loss, dating and sex.
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