Talking to Older Parents about Independence

Having family conversations about aging issues and long term care can be difficult. But families that plan in advance – before problems arise – make these conversations more reasonable than some may fear. An AARP survey found that most parents feel better about having this kind of discussion when things are going well, as part of the planning for their future. By knowing their wishes, you’ll be better able to help your parents live life the way they wish to live. 

Here are some tips to help you and your loved ones navigate conversations about independence and staying home.



Plan the Conversation

It’s always helpful to plan a sticky conversation. One of the ways to break the ice might work for you and your family.

Approach the subject indirectly:

  • “I know you’re taking lots of pills. How do you keep track of them? Would a pill organizer from the drug store help you?”
  • “John says his dad has given up driving. How would you get around when you can no longer drive?”

Be direct, but non-confrontational:

  • “Mom, I’m worried that you seem to be unsteady on your feet. I’m wondering how I can help protect you from falls.”
  • “If you ever get to the point where you can’t live alone, Dad, where would you want to live?”

Watch for openings:

  • “Uncle Joe, you mentioned having problems with your eyesight. Have you seen the eye doctor lately? Does it seem to affect your driving?”
  • “Gramps, after you said last week that you had trouble turning the handles on the water faucets, I wondered how you were managing with the shower.”

Share your own feelings about your parents’ changing life:

  • “You’ve always been so independent, Dad. I imagine it’s now hard for you to ask for help. Is it?” Let your parents know they can always ask you for help when they need it.
  • “It’s hard to see you give up reading, Mom, now that your eyesight is getting bad. Do you miss it? Would you like to try a book on tape?”

Make a List

Family members are sometimes uncomfortable jumping right into a talk about sensitive topics, such as finances.  If so, consider giving them a list of questions or concerns and schedule a time to talk. This lets them think about the kinds of help they may need and prepare for the conversation.

Dealing with Resistance

Some resistance to talking about independence is normal. They may put you off with reassuring statements or tell you to mind your own business. But experts advise:

  1. Respect your parents’ feelings if they make it clear they want to avoid a subject. Try another time.
  2. Push the issue if health or safety is at risk, while recognizing your parents’ right to be in charge of their own lives.
  3. Act firmly, but with compassion, if you decide you cannot avoid intervening: “Dad, we can’t ignore this any longer. We have to deal with it.”
  4. Involve other people who your parents respect, such as a minister, lawyer, or a family friend.
  5. Hold a family meeting where everyone discusses concerns and jointly develops a mutually agreeable plan. Make sure your parents feel a sense of involvement and control over their lives. Listen to their opinions and recognize their right to make decisions. Stay focused on current needs and avoid past resentments. They’ll feel more in control if the meeting is in their own home.
  6. Look for community resources that can help a parent remain independent, such as transportation, home health care, meal delivery. Share the options with them.

Focus on Key Points

Guessing your parents’ wishes for their future can lead to bad mistakes and hard feelings. Ask them about their own thoughts about their current needs and concerns, worries about the future, and hopes and goals for their older years. While you don’t want to ask all these questions in one conversation, focus your talks on these major areas.

Where they live: Is your home still ok for your needs? Can you still manage the stairs? Would making some simple home modification help? Should you think about living somewhere else?

Everyday activities: Do you need help with running the house and doing chores? Yard work? Can you hear a knock at the door or the phone ring?

Getting around: Can you get to your doctor visits? Is driving getting hard? Are you getting out to see friends? Getting to the store ok? Can you get to religious services?

Health: What health problems do you have? Are your prescriptions current? Are you having trouble paying for your medicine? Do you need help remembering when to take your pills?

Money: This topic is particularly tricky so you may want to be less direct. Do you need help getting government or pension benefits? Do you want your Social Security deposited directly in the bank? Have you thought about getting extra income from a reverse mortgage? Do you have any bills you can’t pay? Is all your financial information in one place?

Paying for health care: What kind of health insurance do you have? Has it paid your bills so far? Do you have long-term care insurance? Would you like some help filling out insurance claim forms? Do you have questions about Medicare?

Keep It Positive

Avoid role reversal. Talking to parents and helping them doesn’t mean you are “parenting” them. In your talks, treat each other as equals.

Be prepared to let our parents make their own choices, even if you don’t agree with them. As long as they are not impaired with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, your parents have the right to make their own decisions. Growing older does not give up that right. Even when they make what you think is an unsafe choice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are no longer capable of living independently. If their choices disturb you, you may need to set your own limits to how involved you can be, so that their decisions don’t run your life.

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