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How to make conversations with aging parents a little less awkward

Talking to aging parents and family members about their future can be tricky, but Megan Johnson says the sooner, the better.

The Halifax-based research facilitator, 36, is a secondary caregiver to her father, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease. Navigating tough conversations was only more difficult after the diagnosis, she said.

"It's easy early on to brush off the conversations and say, well, that's a future problem," said Johnson, who is also a member of the Canadian Caregivers Advisory Network.

Canada's population is rapidly aging. According to Statistics Canada data from 2021, the number of people 85 and older is expected to grow by three times in 2050. And by 2065, the country will be home to over 87,500 centenarians, projections suggest.

As people live longer, it's creating what Laura Tamblyn Watts, the CEO of Canada's national seniors advocacy organization CanAge, calls a "club sandwich generation" of caregivers.

"We have about six generations going now," she told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay, noting that caregiving is no longer necessarily linear.

That means people in their 90s could even be supporting their aging children who have dementia, while that generation's children are supporting their own kids, she says.

Although discussing the needs and wishes of someone who is aging can be tricky, there are ways to mitigate some of the discomfort, both experts and caregivers say.

'They can be unwieldy'

After his diagnosis, there were a lot of conversations that Johnson needed to have with her father.

Many revolved around his care: what are Johnson and her mother's role be in his care? Where does he want to live? Others were more administrative, like whether he wants a funeral.

Those conversations started in a variety of ways.

"They can be unwieldy," she said. "Sometimes they happen by sitting down and kind of hashing it out together at a table in a really direct way — like, what would you want in this scenario?"

But often, they begin more naturally, like out on a walk when there's an opening to explore difficult questions.

"The conversation happens over a long period of time, and often happens in these kind of small, organic ways," she said.

Anthony Quinn has seen those conversations from two sides.

As chief community officer for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), he hears from members grappling with the changes that come with aging. 

As a son, he's been helping his parents, 81 and 84, navigate, first, downsizing from their family home and, more recently, moving his father into long-term care after a dementia diagnosis 10 years ago.

The process, he says, can be slow going.

"With the downsizing from the house, that probably took two or three years for the conversation [to go from] 'this house is getting a little big' to 'there's alternatives you could look at, and some of your peers are starting to go there,'" said Quinn, who lives in Oakville, Ont.

Quinn's parents tried different options, like renting a condo and moving into an assisted living facility. But as his father's support needs grew, long-term care became necessary. Now Quinn's mother lives in an assisted living residence near her husband.

Giving aging parents agency in their decision is also crucial, he says.

"We don't always follow, perhaps, what we know to be the best advice, but I wouldn't take anything away from someone making their own decisions."

Conversation starters for children with aging parents

In her new book, Let's Talk About Aging Parents, Tamblyn Watts offers a variety of approaches and scripts to account for different reactions.

"If you think that your independent, stubborn dad with opinions on everything is going to really receive it super well when you come home for Thanksgiving and announce that you're going to move them out of their house … it's not going to work," she said.

The first prompt, she says, can be with "What if?" questions — like what if someone here fell down the stairs? That can be an opening to a larger conversation about downsizing.

Tamblyn Watts recommends not putting aging loved ones on the spot, and instead bringing them into the conversation and ensuring they're part of the decision making process.

"Approach it a different way by saying, look, I'm really thinking I might downsize. I hurt my knee last year and I'm trying to figure out what to do. I'd love your opinions on what to do about that."

If the conversation is about someone giving up their driver's licence, she suggests beginning from a place of mutual understanding.

"Start off with the 'Aren't the highways awful?' approach," she said. "Trucks are going everywhere at night; those big lights are glaring. I just hate driving on those highways."

For those who aren't sure when it's the right time to start a conversation, Quinn says the 40-70 rule is an option to consider.

"The idea is when you hit 40 or your parents hit 70, it's time to have that conversation and really map out what the parents want out of getting older and what the expectation is, and what your role as the adult child will be," he said.

Tamblyn Watts suggests they come up even sooner, using the "Hallmark" rule. Any time you're celebrating a greeting-card milestone is an opportunity to talk about the future, she says.


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