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Independent Living: Starting a Dialogue

The line between being able to live independently and needing assistance can sometimes be very fine. For your loved one’s welfare and your own peace of mind, begin discussing their living situation and their medical, financial and legal needs before problems arise. Inquire about how they see their future and how they want to handle things should they require help. Know that they may be resistant to your questions, though, so the further in advance you begin the conversation, the more time you’ll give them to open up.

See also: 8 steps to make independent living work.

Where to Start
Start by making a list of questions to ask your loved one. When the opportunities arise, begin tackling the list one question at a time. Beginning with topics that come up naturally in conversation may prove easier than setting out to get all the questions answered at once. Clearly, if there is an immediate need for information, ask the hard questions, but with delicacy. Do what feels comfortable and consider your relationship with your folks when deciding how to broach the subject. If you’re having a hard time starting the conversation, here are a few ways to break the ice recommended by aging and communication experts:

  • Ask your loved one what they want and need. For example, ask, "What kind of help would you want if you were not able to do everything yourself but wanted to continue to live safely in your home?"
  • Share your own emotions about their changing situation. And urge them to do the same. Say: "Dad, I know you’ve always cherished your independence. I imagine it’s difficult for you to ask for help. Is that right?"
  • Raise the issue indirectly. Mention someone else’s experience or something you have read or seen in the news. For example: "I know you’re taking pills for arthritis, your heart and cholesterol. I saw a commercial for a pill organizer that keeps track of which pills to take when. Would it help if you had a medication organizer with a slot for each day of the week?"
  • Watch for opportunities your loved one provides. For example: "You mentioned problems with your eyesight. Have you seen your doctor lately? Has your vision affected what you normally do, such as reading or driving?"
  • Give your loved one the list of questions you have about their current and future health and living situations, and schedule a time to sit down and talk about them.

Next: Keeping it positive»

Expect Resistance
Your loved one may not want to talk about these issues. They may fend you off with reassuring statements or tell you to mind your own business. Respect their feelings when they make it clear that they want to avoid a topic. Plan a different approach later.

If your loved one’s health or safety is at risk, however, you should intervene as soon as possible. You also may need to take immediate action if their health care expenses are depleting their bank accounts or if they’re avoiding the need for important legal documents. Act firmly but with compassion. Say: "Dad, we can’t ignore this any longer. We have to deal with it."

It might help to involve other family members or other individuals your loved one respects and trusts. Gather together to discuss concerns and to develop a specific, proactive plan.

Find out about community services that preserve independence, such as transportation programs and home health care. Then, if it’s clear that your loved one needs assistance, you’ll be ready to share these options.

Keep It Positive
In even the closest families, communicating with aging adults about their needs often requires focus and determination. Keep conversations positive and productive by stating your concerns in the "I" form: A sentence that begins with "I feel," "I need" or "I’m concerned" is less threatening than a "you" statement. For example, say: "I’m concerned that you may fall on the stairs. I could put a 100-watt bulb at the bottom of the stairs and install a handrail. That would make them safer for everyone." Don’t say: "Going upstairs in your condition is ridiculous. You’re sure to fall."

Don’t "parent" your loved one. And be prepared to let them make their own life choices, even if you don’t agree with them. They have a right to make decisions (as long as they are not cognitively impaired). Growing older does not diminish that right. Even when they make what you consider an unwise choice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are no longer capable of independence. In fact, you should set limits on your involvement so that their decisions don’t run your life.

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