Talking to your aging parent about moving to an assisted living community isn’t easy. It may never feel like the right time to have “The Talk” with your parent. Many adult children avoid bringing it up because it can be a sensitive topic.
This guide will provide different ways and ideas to make having “the talk” with your parent and siblings easier.
Setting the Stage for your Conversation
Accepting that your aging parent needs help with daily living is tough. You also know how much they have to gain by moving to an assisted living community. They’ll eat better, take their medication on time and won’t be isolated. They won’t need to ask someone to mow the lawn or shovel the sidewalk. You’ll rest easier knowing they’re in a safe environment.
Your parent, on the other hand, may look at moving as nothing but loss.
Imagine you've lived in your home for years and in the last few you’ve dealt with a lot of change, most of it unwanted. Friends, neighbors and maybe even a spouse have passed away. You find yourself relying on others for shoveling the sidewalk and mowing the lawn. You avoid driving at night. Sometimes you forget if you’ve taken your medication. Aging isn’t easy. It’s frustrating. And sometimes it’s scary.
Now your children are talking about assisted living. They want you to leave everything that’s familiar and comfortable to move to a new place. Your mind whirls. What if I don’t know anyone? What if my children just leave me and never visit? What if I don’t like it?
Your elderly parent is transitioning from one phase of their life into a new one. Understanding the emotions you parent may express as you navigate through conversations about what’s best for them can help you prepare for what’s to come.
Their emotions can be like the stages of grief. The five stages of grief, (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are a part of the framework that allows us to learn to live with what we feel we may be losing.
Let’s take a closer look at the different stages of grief your parent may experience as you broach the topic of assisted living with them.
- Denial. Your parent may tell you that they’re “just fine living on their own.” They may even believe it. To get an accurate read, look at how are they’re dressed. Are their clothes clean and buttoned correctly? Have they bathed recently? Check the fridge. Is there food? Is it fresh or expired? If everything looks fine, stop by unannounced.
- Anger. When you discuss sensitive or unwelcome news with your parent, you may trigger anger. It may be a mask for pain. If your parent believes, rightly or wrongly, they are being forced into assisted living, they may lash out. Anger can also be a sign of an adverse reaction to a medication or of cognitive issues such as dementia or Alzheimer's.
- Bargaining. Your parent may try to bargain with you to stay in their home. They might promise to take better care of the house, let a cleaner come in once a week or any number of things to avoid leaving their home.
- Depression. They may withdraw or refuse to speak with you. Your parent has accepted the move and is working through the loss of their home.
- Acceptance. Your parent will become more interested in being involved in the process. They may want to tour assisted living facilities with you or talk about what they’ll take with them to their new home. Encourage them to join as they’re comfortable and able. They’ll be happier in the long run if they’re involved in the decision-making process.
What to Do
Before discussing the topic, research the available options, costs and any other questions you think your parent might ask right away. If your first conversation goes well, if you’re able to reassure them and answer most of their questions, the entire process will likely be smoother.
Here are some additional tips to make your conversations and the process easier.
- Listen. To what they say and what they may be trying to say. Your parent might not be willing or able to come out and say, for example, “I’m going to lose my independence,” or “I’m going to lose my privacy.” Try to discern what their concerns are and address them honestly and thoughtfully.
- Ask questions. Your parent might utter a broad, dismissive statement about assisted living to shut down the conversation. Asking clarifying questions will help uncover the real issues.
- Allow time to process. Moving is a big change. Give your elderly parent time to get used to it. You may have been thinking about this for quite some time, but the idea may be brand new to them. Your parent will initially look at only what they will lose in the transition. Have a list of how they’ll benefit from assisted living in mind and share if the time is right. Be careful not to overwhelm them with too much information all at once.
- Don't expect an immediate resolution.
It’s unlikely that one or two conversations with your parent will lead to a decision – or acceptance. It may take time for them to process this life-changing event.
- Ask what’s most important.
You may think that your parent wants a lot of privacy. They might actually be looking forward to making new friends or taking up an old hobby like a weekly card game. Talk with your parent about what they’re looking for when they move, so you can plan accordingly.
- Promise you won’t abandon them.
If you’ve been the primary caretaker, you’ve likely been visiting frequently to help with various tasks. If you no longer “need” to visit, your parent may quickly jump to the conclusion that you’ll stop visiting. Reassure them that you won’t forget about them and will continue to visit.
- Be ready to talk about finances.
Your parent may worry that they'll run out of money. And if that happens, what will happen to them? Be prepared to talk about different financial options and they’ll be more open to discussing a move.
Having the Talk with Siblings
What to Know
Every family is different. You and your siblings may provide enormous support for one another during this time. Your siblings may also make the situation stressful.
Know that how your family works through this transition has almost as much to do with the past as it does with the present. Family members often revert to their childhood roles and behaviors and long-buried or forgiven grievances may resurface.
Regardless of your relationships, it's crucial to approach your parent together. It's less confusing, and makes the situation real. If you, as siblings, can't agree on what your parent should do, why should they?
If you believe your family can’t have constructive conversations about your parent’s future, ask a social worker or clergyperson to facilitate. An objective third party can help guide your discussions until you find the best solution for your parent.
Much like your parent, your siblings may be grappling with emotions like the stages of grief.
- Denial. If your sibling chooses to deny that your parent needs more help, they may be trying to protect themselves emotionally. You can present them with evidence to the contrary but forcing the issue will only strain your relationship. Having the discussion about assisted living may cause fear and hesitation from your sibling. They may associate assisted living with “the beginning of the end” and underneath it all may be coping with feelings of fear that moving a parent means coming to the realization that someday mom or dad might not be there anymore.
- Anger. Whether your sibling accepts or denies your parent's need for more help, they may become angry at the situation, you or their siblings. Feelings of anger can stem from frustration that they didn’t see the warning signs themselves, or may stem from their unrealistic expectation that this is something the family should be able to manage themselves.
- Bargaining. Like your parent, your siblings may offer alternative ways that will only partially fix the situation. They might offer financial assistance for in-home care, or may offer to help with caregiving.
- Depression. When reality sets in, your sibling may withdraw. And like other stages, may act in unfamiliar ways. They may refuse to help with choosing a community, or making the move happen.
- Acceptance. As your sibling comes to terms with what your parent needs, they can help your parent, and you, plan and participate in the future.
Have an open mind to what your siblings may have to say and contribute to the decision about your parent with these different ideas.
- Listen. Everyone wants to feel heard. Listen to everyone’s side of the story.
- Ask for their opinions. If you’ve been the primary caretaker, your siblings may feel that you don’t need or want their advice or opinions. Reach out to them with questions and consider what they have to say.
- Be ready to talk about finances. Understand your parent’s financial situation so you can answer your siblings’ questions about costs and what your parent can afford.
- Ask for help. Your siblings may be more than willing to help, but they don’t know what they can do. Ask them how they’d like to help or give them specific tasks. Know that many times siblings don’t realize that the primary caregiver needs or even wants help.
- Keep the communication lines open. Decide how you will keep each other informed. Will you meet up or call regularly? Send email updates? When you make this decision early on, there are fewer chances for hurt feelings and information falling through the cracks.
Talking with Siblings Who Live Far Away
Keep in mind these special considerations for your siblings who may live far away.
- Proof. When a sibling doesn’t see your parent regularly, they may need proof that assisted living is necessary. If they haven’t witnessed the changes first hand, and aren’t able to visit, compile a list of reasons for moving your parent to an assisted living community. If you have other siblings or family members, ask for their support.
- Communication. Remember to keep them informed. It’s easy to jump on Skype or FaceTime for a personal, face-to-face update. Phone and email work, too.
- Ask them for help. Your sibling may think that they can’t help since they’re far away. But many tasks can be done from a distance. They can also check in more frequently with your parent. They may provide more information to your sibling or express more questions or concerns.
The stages of grief are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life and circumstances. Grief occurs in response to loss. Moving a parent to assisted living can be a scary thought. But, with the right approach, realistic expectations about what you might encounter, and a desire to find the best possible quality of life for your parent, any challenging conversation can be navigated.