Adult children between the ages of 30 and 50 can find it daunting to navigate the conversation minefield that is aging and end-of-life care with their parents.
Jae-Woo Kim M.D., a Twin Cities hospitalist, says it’s not uncommon for people to avoid discussions about death and dying; when you or your loved one is healthy, the topic seems irrelevant. Open communication, observation and action are key.
Kim provides tips to help empower aging parents and provide their children with concrete ways to help them as they age.
What to watch for: “Our function slowly declines over time,” Kim says. “Falls and fractures can take someone from 95 percent down to 75 percent with other complications down the road. Assess [your loved one’s] mobility by observing how well they get around the house. Is there clutter that could cause a potential trip and fall?”
In addition, Kim says, “Isolation and hearing loss is a huge unrecognized factor in depression.” Those with poor hearing may be embarrassed and begin to shut down, communicating less and less. Pay attention to whether parents are being social, and help them to remain engaged.
Aging in place: Some folks love their homes and don’t want to leave. “But you need a sense of if it’s manageable,” Kim says. Remaining in their home can be good, as it encourages movement—to and from the kitchen or bathroom, for example. While community living may not “feel” like home, it can provide much needed socialization opportunities with peers.
Family communication: Adult children should seriously think about how many encounters they likely have left with their parents over the next 20–30 years. “Parents want some connection even if it’s brief. Try to stay engaged, and be willing to be the one to reach out first; and keep other siblings in the loop,” Kim says.
Metaphorically speaking, Kim says, “Siblings who live farther away may know ‘there’s fire’ but assume Mom and Dad are still doing okay. It’s the siblings who are taking care of Mom and Dad who ‘feel the heat;’” they understand what’s happening. So again, communication is key, preferably without judgement or guilt.
How to help: Staying active, picking up new hobbies and being engaged with peers are vital to healthy aging, according to Kim. For example, he says, “My 65-year-old mother picked up cello and golf. She knows she’s not going to be good at it but wanted to try something new.”
To that end, Kim says, “Weight gain or health issues can lead to the temptation to do less, but that’s the opposite of what we should do. We should encourage our parents to stay mentally engaged with things like puzzles, reading and volunteering.”
Managing healthcare: Kim acknowledges there is a power imbalance in healthcare. “It’s like going to a mechanic. I don’t know if what he says is right. Fortunately, in Minnesota, we have great systems and an abundance of access to care,” he says. Kim recommends choosing a doctor with five to 10 years of experience (Like with many first jobs, there’s more potential for young doctors to move around.) and who is likely to age with you. He notes it’s also easier to streamline care when patients remain within the same healthcare system.