No one likes to think about it, much less talk about it. But at some point, your loved one may not be able to do the things he or she once did, such as driving, taking care of money or even managing a household. That can be a difficult reality for an older person to accept, so it's important that you discuss these matters with great sensitivity. A careless remark — no matter how well-intentioned — can be extremely hurtful.
If you are tempted to say the following things, make sure to think twice about the way that you say them:
1. "You shouldn't be driving at your age!"
For older people driving can signify freedom and independence. And many older drivers are able to operate a car as safely as any driver on the road. But if you're concerned that your parent's vision, hearing, reflexes or judgment is no longer sharp enough for him or her to be behind the wheel, it's important to express your concern.
A better way: Bring up the topic indirectly, such as, "I heard Mr. Jones gave up driving. Do you think your driving ability has changed?" Talk about ideas you have for keeping your loved one on the road — such as only driving during daylight or avoiding busy intersections — rather than suggesting that he or she give up driving completely. Try to be understanding if your parent resists change, but don't back down if you are legitimately concerned about safety.
Check out AARP's online seminar We Need To Talk, which provides practical tips and advice on assessing and determining when it's time to limit or stop driving and how to discuss the topic with loved ones.
Meanwhile, check out public transportation routes and schedules. Coordinate a list of people who can give Mom a lift whenever she needs to go somewhere. Call the local Area Agency on Aging, too, as well as churches and synagogues, to see whether they provide transportation service for seniors.
2. "I think I should take over your finances."
Money can be especially touchy for your parents who may be too private, or proud, to talk about any difficulties, let alone turn over, their finances to their children. They may worry about losing control of their buying decisions, running out of money in the years ahead, or not having funds to pass on to their children. Making it worse: You and your siblings may be reluctant to discuss the specifics of their money out for fear of appearing self-interested. As a result, this all-important topic is often conveniently avoided.
A better way: Aim for a balance between guiding and controlling. First, assess the seriousness of the situation: Does your parent have enough money to cover her bills? Are Social Security checks deposited directly to her account? If her checkbook and filing system is organized, perhaps all she needs right now is help sorting through the mail and paying bills.
However, if unopened bills are piling up, credit card statements list extravagant purchases or closets are filled with unused stuff she ordered from the home shopping network, more serious help is needed. Share the steps you've taken to get your own financials in order. Then express your concern: "Mom, I'm worried that if something happens to you, I won't know what to do or where to look for important papers." Let her know she can count on you, but she needs to make sure you have access to financial and legal information as well as financial power of attorney. If she bristles, put off your talk for a few weeks and try again. If it's within your budget, consider hiring an accountant or financial planner who will have the professional distance to bring up touchy topics more easily.
3. "How can you live in such a messy house?"
Besides being downright insulting, this comment ignores the fact that many seniors don't realize that their standards of cleanliness have slipped.
A better way: First, determine whether she's let the housework go because she physically can't do it and simply needs help getting it done. Or, is she deteriorating mentally and doesn't realize the dirty dishes are in the living room?
If it's the former, begin the conversation with an offer: "Mom, I have an idea: Why don't we ask some of the strong young adults in the family to do some heavy cleaning around here? I'll buy the pizza." Of, if you can afford it, hire a cleaning person to come in. Seniors are often very willing to accept help around the house, and most communities have resources such as cleaning services or aides who can perform certain household tasks. While you're on the subject, suggest some inexpensive home improvements to help her live more safely at home: a higher toilet seat or grab bars in the bathroom, devices that can help her reach items on high shelves, etc.
4. "Why are you wearing that same old jacket?"
If Mom was a fashionista and Dad as meticulous as Gary Grant, it can be dismaying to see them neglect their personal appearance. But this isn't something to ignore: Their wardrobe choices could signal such problems as failing eyesight, inability to dress themselves or even serious symptoms of depression. But don't jump to conclusions or make insensitive remarks.
A better way: You need to pick your battles. As long as a senior is safe and healthy, this should not be one of them. Still, it doesn't hurt to offer help: Ask your parent whether he needs help doing laundry. Is it hard now to transport clothing to the washer and dryer? Find ways to make this task easier and safer, or offer to do it for him. Also, find out whether certain wardrobe items — a jacket with small buttons, a dress that zips up the back — are too difficult to manage. Help your parent find clothing that is comfortable and easy to put on — and will make him look and feel better.
Also of interest: Have a caregiving question? Ask AARP's panel of experts.
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