If we want to prevent aging in isolation, we MUST take steps now to encourage open family communication. Sit down with your parents and your children and talk about your values, your experiences, and your wishes for how you will live the last quarter of your life. I know that it is scary and often unpleasant to discuss these matters. Regardless, you will age. Your parents will age. Eventually you and your family will need to face and address the many layers of the aging journey. Be proactive, not reactive.
The below is an excerpt from my upcoming book which encourages family discussions about aging:
Melanie noticed small cognitive changes in her mother at least two years before a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was given. Prior to the diagnosis, Melanie minimized the short term memory problems her mother displayed, assuming that they were a product of depression and loneliness after the loss of her spouse. She did not mention them to her mother or to her siblings. When Melanie’s mother began to show more obvious signs of illness, Melanie immediately assisted her mother in following up with a physician.
Prior to this time, Melanie’s mother had been private about her health and financial situation believing that parents should never share this information with their children. All of that changed when Melanie’s father was diagnosed with a terminal illness a few years earlier. Melanie took on a supportive role in her father’s care and her mother began to see Melanie as a care partner in addition to a daughter. This new dynamic assisted Melanie as she became involved in her mother’s daily life, health and finances when she began to have health concerns.
When Melanie’s mother first saw her physician to address the onset of cognitive symptoms, it was natural that Melanie would be involved. Melanie was relieved that her mother’s physician did not object to her being present in routine visits. Although Melanie and her mother did not discuss aging in detail before this time, because of their prior experience sharing the care of Melanie’s father, and because Melanie was involved with her mother from the very first stage of her illness, participation in the process was welcomed.
“I was invited in. The doctor had no problem with me sitting in and listening…and from then on I was with her for every appointment. This doctor is a geriatric physician so I think he understands. My mom allowed me to ask questions. I made sure she was okay with that first. The doctor would very openly answer the questions but he would still address my mother. I felt he had a really good approach because my mother should not have been excluded at all. My mother was very competent at the time. She did understand. To me it was just an evolution…a natural evolution of the relationship that we had and if I think back…I know she was grateful.”
Melanie’s involvement with her mother and her mother’s physician was a great source of comfort for Melanie and her mother as the disease progressed. Because she became part of the care team at an early stage of her mother’s illness, and at a time when her mother was competent to provide consent, Melanie knew that she would be able to assist her mother in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if she had been excluded from the process. She felt that the physician was her ally and she was given an open invitation to communicate directly with him at any time.
Aligning with aging relatives regarding their health prior to a crisis promotes team care planning with health care professionals and family. Do not wait to initiate discussions within your families. Use the time when all members are healthy to explore your values and expectations.
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