As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, keeping our most vulnerable older population safe is still a priority. However, according to the SCAN Foundation, we have a long road to prepare for the potential obstacles and particular circumstances that older loved ones and most of us will encounter as we age. So when is a good time to start talking about aging with loved ones?
When to Start
Now is an excellent time to think about how you want to age and your goals for the future, no matter how old you are. The holidays are a perfect time to check in with older relatives and see their daily living needs. How can these conversations lead to long-term support, even if there aren’t many in-person visits or services available? These upcoming celebrations may be a great time for breaking through barriers, even virtually.
How to Begin
•Inquire about their everyday routines
Joanne Cleaver is an author and career consultant who arranged for her mother to relocate into an independent living community during the epidemic. Cleaver’s mother had many strokes and falls before the move, but was reluctant to leave her lakeside Vermont home. Not to mention traveling 900 miles to be closer to family. After evaluating her mother’s genuine independence, it became clear that moving was the only solution. Shortly after Cleaver began researching options in the fall of 2019, her mother relocated to be closer to her grandkids.
“It was difficult to separate my mom’s true capabilities from the circumstance,” Cleaver said. “She was OK due to habit and routine,” Cleaver explains that her mother drove the same routes, went to the same outings, and bought the same brands. The routine of her life was obscuring deeper issues of independence, which became apparent through observation and discussion. In person, Cleaver saw that her mother only did well because she had a small selection of daily activities. Driving to a new place or shopping in a new store was impossible without help.
After Cleaver and her mother agreed on a different living arrangement, there were many pieces to manage, including a home sale and touring care facilities during strict COVID-19 health measures. Her mother fulfilled the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arriving in Charlotte, North Carolina. Cleaver had her quarantine at her house before moving on to the independent living community in August. Cleaver’s advice can be used anytime, even when things are back to normal. Families should collect financial and tax documentation six months in advance if a loved one may transition to long-term or independent care.
“You need to start collecting it earlier than you think you do,” she said. “You cannot underestimate the level of details they need.”
Every facility has a different application, and financial institutions have various statement and report formats. “Get the application in advance,” she said, for best results.
•Speak a loved one’s language
Linda Tietje is a Dallas, Texas, business owner specializing in helping older adults share their life stories. Talking about the crucial things was just part of her mission to give older loved ones a voice. However, when it came to having talks with her father, it was admittedly more challenging during COVID-19.
The German native has lived in the U.S. for 15 years, with her divorced parents living overseas and in the higher-risk group for COVID-19. Travel to visit them hasn’t been possible. So Tietje has made do with calls and emails about what aging will look like for her mom and dad. Despite not seeing them since August 2019, the family has answered tough questions before health or independence changes.
“Due to their personal experiences, my parents have always been proactive about putting a plan in place should something happen to them. Neither one wants to be a burden to my sister and me, so both reached out to discuss what should happen if or when the time comes,” she said. “Between calls and emails, my parents initiated and drove these conversations even before COVID. However, COVID made the topic again more pressing.”
Linda’s experience, while inspiring, isn’t always the case in families, however. It’s often the younger family members who first broach these sensitive topics, including care services and end-of-life choices. Linda was fortunate in her situation because her parents chose to discuss these issues while they still had a lot of personal control. The result is a blueprint for the way caregivers and children can start to have talks. Even if they are the first to break the ice.
•Not Lost in Translation
Tietje also shares her father’s best tip for communication:
“He told me years ago that it is much easier to have these conversations when everyone is healthy, and it seems very abstract rather than to wait until it becomes more realistic in our mind.”
She admits that these conversations can be uncomfortable, but she thinks they are reassuring. “We all know what is important to the other while still feeling that the worst-case scenario is a long time out.”
She also wants to express that communication styles are essential. Her father loves writing, so she decided to send him emails and letters with aging care information. Her mother, however, is a fan of phone calls. “Find the communication style that works, and throw any ‘rules’ out the window,” she said.
•Its Ok to Lean on others
Dolly Banks of Fairburn, Georgia, is a 64-year-old retiree and the primary caregiver for her 68-year-old husband Ben, who lives with dementia. The pandemic brought fresh hurdles when the couple was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July. While Dolly was able to return home with a treatment plan, Ben remained in the hospital for a week. Dolly learned firsthand that she couldn’t always meet her husband’s needs independently. During a pandemic, she learned to trust her husband’s care to others.
”The hardest part for me was to leave him at the hospital by himself,” she says. “I made sure that I had the phone beside me, and the doctors and nurses were outstanding about calling to ask questions that he could not answer and keep me up-to-date on his condition.”
Dolly continued Ben’s care by administering medications and ensuring he ate, he returned to the hospital shortly after with complications. He has since been released, but his ongoing dementia care needs remain.
Dolly shared that staying positive has helped her and Ben get through these past few months. She advises anyone coping with COVID and caring for a loved one: “I encourage you to fight to heal and survive,”. “You can make it through no matter how severe your case is. Don’t give up. Speak healing over yourself.”
She also learned to reach out and ask for help when needed. This is a useful piece of advice for discussing an older loved one’s aging preferences and establishing a care plan.
•Taking a Pause is Self-Care
Recently, Dolly took a much-needed pause from caregiving by staying at her daughter’s home while Ben was with their son. “He was in good hands. It gave me a break,” she shares. Ben and Dolly have since sold their house and moved in with family. Their choice ensures that there is always someone at home to continue caring for Ben.
As they got older, she realized how important it is to lean on family for support. Caregiving is a full-time job, so it’s always nice to have a few extra helpers around. As families discuss these topics, identify who can help with various tasks. One family member might do grocery shopping, while others may handle transportation and supporting activities of daily living in the home.
•Aging awareness: More important than ever
With the holidays looking a lot different this holiday season and a pandemic following us into 2022, now is a perfect time to discuss one’s aging goals and preferences, no matter your age and circumstance. It’s easy to put off these conversations. Talking with loved ones about ongoing care needs can bring up complicated feelings. The topic can also highlight complex family dynamics and force the reality that aging — while natural and beautiful — can be challenging.
For more resources on aging and caregiving, visit TheSCANFoundation.org. The SCAN Foundation is an independent public charity devoted to transforming care for older adults.